Arms Checks Unaffected by Ukraine Crisis

Daryl G. Kimball

Although the widening confrontation over the political future of the Crimean peninsula and other parts of the former Soviet Union has ruptured already-strained relations between Moscow and the West and put at risk the implementation of some nuclear risk-reduction initiatives and agreements, Russia is not planning to stop allowing the on-site inspections required under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Russian officials said last month.

To protest Russia’s actions to take control of Crimea, the seven non-Russian members of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries have suspended Russia’s membership in the group. As part of that decision, the seven countries—Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States—changed the location of their planned June summit from Sochi to Brussels. The Russian actions in Crimea have disrupted planning for the activities of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which the G-8 launched in 2002.

Less than a week into the crisis, on March 8, unnamed Russian Defense Ministry officials told RIA Novosti and other Russian media outlets that Moscow was prepared to suspend receiving inspection teams as required under New START because “groundless threats to Russia from the U.S. and NATO regarding its Ukrainian policy are considered by us as an unfriendly gesture and allow us to declare a force majeure.”

According to the protocol to New START, the only basis for the cancellation of inspections is “circumstances brought about by force majeure,” an unexpected event that is beyond the control of the inspected party.

Antony Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said on NBC’s Meet the Press on March 9 that ceasing inspections as required by New START would be “a serious development.”

On March 12, however, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told reporters in Moscow that Russia did not plan to suspend inspections under New START and other treaties due to tensions over Ukraine. “We intend to continue to fulfill [our] international obligations and to continue the practice of voluntary transparency in the extent to which it will respond to our interests,” Antonov said. “This applies fully to the START Treaty and the Vienna Document 2011,” he said. The Vienna Document 2011 on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures is a politically binding agreement that allows for information exchanges and visits designed to increase openness and transparency with regard to military activities in the participating states.

In a March 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official reinforced Antonov’s statement, saying that “inspection activities in Russia continue in [a] regular and unhindered way.” He cited a Feb. 25-March 1 New START inspection at one of the Russian bases for intercontinental ballistic missiles and Russia’s green light for a Ukrainian aircraft to overfly Russian territory as part of an observation mission under the Open Skies Treaty.

New START allows the United States and Russia to conduct as many as 18 on-site inspections annually, with the tally starting on Feb. 5 of each year. In the current period, the two sides have conducted one inspection apiece; more are planned. As of March 14, each side had conducted 56 inspections under New START since 2011. An inspection in the United States and another in Russia were completed in late March, according to U.S. government sources.

Russia’s willingness to meet its New START obligations may be tested in the coming weeks as Western governments impose increasingly tough sanctions on key Russian officials and commercial entities in response to Russia’s ongoing military occupation and March 18 annexation of Crimea.

The current crisis erupted after weeks of political unrest and protests in Kiev over the decision by the government of President Viktor Yanukovych to reject a proposed Ukrainian-EU association agreement opposed by Moscow. Following the violent crackdown on protests and the abrupt departure of Yanukovych on Feb. 21, opposition parliamentary leaders and some former Yanukovych supporters moved to form an interim government.

Days later, Russian troops took control of Crimea. On March 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia’s actions were taken at the request of Yanukovych and ethnic Russians in Ukraine concerned about the new leadership in Kiev. On March 16, over the protests of the acting government in Kiev, the UN Security Council, and Western governments, the Crimean regional government held a hastily arranged referendum on joining Russia, and on March 18, Russia declared the annexation of Crimea.

The United States, the UK, and Ukraine have called the actions a blatant violation of international law and the security assurances established in the 1994 Budapest memorandum, in which Russia, the UK, and the United States pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” Those security assurances were a key factor leading to Ukraine’s decision to remove the sizable nuclear weapons arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union, join the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and become a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear-weapon state.

But in his March 14 e-mail, the Russian Foreign Ministry official said that “the security assurances were given to the legitimate government of Ukraine but not to the forces that came to power following the coup d’etat” in Kiev.

Ukrainian officials vehemently disagree with that interpretation of the Budapest memorandum. On March 3, Yuriy Sergeyev, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency session of the Security Council that Russia is “obliged to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. In this regard, I want to underline that, by this aggression, the Russian Federation is undermining the NPT regime.”

Addressing representatives from 53 countries at the nuclear security summit in The Hague on March 24, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that “the credibility of the assurances given to Ukraine in the Budapest memorandum of 1994 has been seriously undermined by recent events.”

“The implications are profound, both for regional security and the integrity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime,” he said. But he added, “This should not serve as an excuse to pursue nuclear weapons, which will only increase insecurity and isolation.”

On March 25, the United States and Ukraine issued a joint statement at the nuclear security summit pledging ongoing cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and security. In the statement, the United States condemned “Russia’s failure to abide by its commitments” under the Budapest memorandum.

Russia’s “unilateral military actions in Ukraine undermine the foundation of the global security architecture and endanger European peace and security,” the joint statement charged.