START follow-on: Reductions – not radical optimists – can focus on limits

In conjunction with the Obama-Medvedev Summit in Moscow today, the United States and Russia reached a Joint Understanding (White House press release) for establishing new limitations on the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles under the START Follow-on Treaty. The numerical goals are significant when comparing them to the original START agreement, but they are not so radical when comparing them to deployed numbers that are currently in the American and Russian arsenals.

Current strategic delivery vehicles, as reported under START requirements as of January 2009:

United States 1,198

Russia 814

New goal 500-1,100, which would be a reduction from the 1,600 set under the original START agreement.

Thus, the United States is only 98 vehicles away from the new goal, and Russia is already within this new limit. But this is a reduction of 500 delivery vehicles from the original START agreement, and may help to alleviate somewhat Russian concerns about American plans for breaking away with a long-range conventional arsenal (as discussed in a recent paper by Jonathan McLaughlin). On warheads, at first glance the progress between the original START and the follow-on agreement looks more significant.

Current strategic nuclear warheads under START counting rules:

United States 5,576 attributed nuclear warheads

Russia 3,909 attributed nuclear warheads

New goal 1,500-1,675, which would be a reduction from the 6,000 attributed strategic nuclear warheads under the first START.

Going from 6,000 to 1,675 seems like a major leap. Both countries, however, have reduced their operationally deployed nuclear warheads in the meantime, and the reductions were codified in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (or SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty), which set limits between 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads by 2012, when the agreement also expires. However, unlike the current START agreement, SORT did not establish a verification regime or parameters for delivery vehicles. So in a very significant way, Russia and US arms control relations have rested on the strength of START and fortunately, the follow-on agreement will also have a verification and inspections regime.

Unfortunately, however, Presidents Obama and Medvedev failed to make an official pronouncement on any longer-term goals past the START follow-on, although Obama did say in response to a reporter’s question that he hoped for deeper reductions in future agreements. President Obama has repeatedly called for a world free of nuclear weapons during visits abroad, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin even said last month that Russia would consider giving up nuclear weapons if all other countries did so as well.

Obama and Medvedev did agree to form a US-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission that will oversee working groups to deal with a wide rage of issues, three of which will focus on: nuclear energy and security; arms control and international security; and defense, foreign policy and counterterrorism. The Commission may become the framework within which any future bilateral nuclear weapons agreements are sought, and might serve as a forum for the two countries to consider widening their efforts to include China, France and the United Kingdom.

Because the current agreement will expire on December 5 of this year, Presidents Medvedev and Obama are under a considerable amount of pressure to hammer out an agreement quickly. Taking into account the sour nature of recent bilateral relations in general, and more specifically Russia’s concerns about US conventional weapons and long-term plans for missile defense, and the requirement placed on the Obama Administration to produce a Nuclear Posture Review by year’s end, it may have been too optimistic to expect a more far-reaching announcement. But as mentioned during their joint press conference today, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the most critical regime for dealing with nuclear weapons threats, and if Russian and American leaders do not signal stronger moves toward further nuclear reductions, they will come under severe pressure at the NPT Review Conference in May 2010.

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