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Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) At a Glance
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Last Reviewed: 
July 2022

Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), also known as the Moscow Treaty, on May 24, 2002. The treaty committed the United States and Russia to reducing their deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 warheads apiece. The two countries also agreed to keep the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in force.

This warhead limit was set to take effect and expire on the same day, December 31, 2012. The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) superseded SORT on Feb. 5, 2011.

Background: Bush entered the White House in 2001 vowing to cut U.S. nuclear weapons to “the lowest possible number consistent with our national security.” Similarly, Putin supported lowering deployed U.S. and Russian strategic forces to less than 1,500 warheads. At that time, U.S. and Russian arsenals each contained close to the 1991 START I limit of 6,000 “accountable” warheads apiece, but the Kremlin’s forces were projected to decline more rapidly and deeply because of financial and technical limitations.

The two presidents differed on how to pursue smaller forces. Bush advocated unilateral reductions so the United States could readily alter the size and composition of its arsenal over time and respond, if needed, to new threats. But Putin favored codifying reductions in a treaty to help preserve some parity and predictability between the United States and Russia. Facing persistent pressure from both the Kremlin and top U.S. lawmakers, the Bush administration agreed to negotiate a legally-binding accord.

Nonetheless, the final product conformed closely to the Bush administration’s predisposed positions of minimizing constraints and maintaining flexibility. On March 6, 2003, the Senate gave its advice and consent to ratification in a 95-0 vote, and SORT entered into force June 1, 2003. SORT contained only five articles and totaled less than 500 words.

Reductions: Unlike past strategic arms control agreements between Moscow and Washington, SORT did not specify which warheads had to be reduced or how reductions were to be made.

The treaty stated that the two sides would limit their strategic forces in accordance with three specific earlier statements made by Bush and Putin. On Nov. 13, 2001, Bush said, “The United States will reduce our operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next decade, a level fully consistent with American security.” On the same day, Putin said, “Russia is stating its readiness to proceed with significant reductions of strategic offensive arms. That is why today we are proposing a radical program of further reductions of [strategic offensive arms], at the least by a factor of three, to the minimum level necessary to maintain strategic equilibrium in the world.” The treaty text also pointed to a statement by Putin on Dec. 13, 2001, that “A particularly important task in these conditions is to legally formalize the agreements that have been reached on further drastic, irreversible, and verifiable reductions in strategic offensive arms, which we believe should be at the level of 1,500-2,200 nuclear warheads for each side.”

These vague statements allowed each side to interpret and implement its reductions as it saw fit. The United States had stated the treaty limits the number of warheads on its “operationally deployed” intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as well as warheads loaded on heavy bombers or stationed at heavy bomber bases. Some spare strategic warheads stored at heavy bomber bases, however, did not count against the treaty limit. Moscow had not publicly stated what warheads it considered limited by the treaty. A 2005 State Department report noted, “Russia could use the U.S. definition…or some other counting method to quantify its reductions.”

There was no limit on how many strategic warheads the United States and Russia could keep in storage or reserve. On July 9, 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The treaty will allow you to have as many warheads as you want.” Washington later announced in June 2004 that it planned to almost halve the total U.S. nuclear stockpile (deployed and non-deployed) of roughly 10,000 warheads by 2012 — a goal it achieved by 2007, leading the Bush administration to promise another 15 percent cut by 2012.

No warheads or delivery vehicle had to be destroyed under the accord. Past strategic treaties spelled out precise destruction obligations and processes for eliminating delivery vehicles to ensure that “reduced” warheads could not be quickly redeployed. No previous accords mandated actual warhead destruction, but then-Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed in March 1997 to explore warhead destruction as part of the two countries’ next reductions treaty.

SORT contained no interim reduction levels or sublimits. The United States, however, had repeatedly stated it intended to lower its strategic warheads to 3,500-4,000 by 2007. Russia did not reveal any interim goals.

The treaty also did not regulate or constrain how deployed warheads were fielded. “Each Party shall determine for itself the composition and structure of its strategic offensive arms,” the treaty declared. In effect, this meant the United States and Russia could continue deploying multiple warheads on a single ICBM—a configuration banned by the 1993 START II accord. However, START II never entered into force, and Russia repudiated the agreement on June 14, 2002—a day after the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty outlawing nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses.

Verification: SORT contained no provisions for assessing compliance. The Bush administration argued against such provisions, citing improved U.S.-Russian relations. Instead, the two sides said they would rely on the 1991 START verification regime for verifying implementation. However, START I expired December 5, 2009, three years before the SORT limits took effect. The two governments agreed in the spring of 2006 to launch a working group to address START’s expiration. The U.S. delegation to the working group was headed by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, while the Russian side was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak.

The treaty established the Bilateral Implementation Commission (BIC) as a confidential forum for discussing SORT implementation issues. The BIC was designed to meet twice per year.

In conjunction with SORT, the United States and Russia also created the Consultative Group for Strategic Security to explore additional strategic arms matters. Under this framework, the two sides formed three working groups, including one on “offensive transparency” as well as missile defense and tactical nuclear weapons. The group on offensive transparency met only four times—the last time in January 2005—before it was disbanded.

Withdrawal: Either party could withdraw from the agreement after providing a three-months’ notice of its intent to do so. Atypical of most arms control treaties, the withdrawing party did not have to justify its action.