New START anniversary and old nuclear baggage

Thursday of this week marks the first anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s vote in favor of ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which established verifiable limits on Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons. The vote of 71-26 on December 22, 2010 ended a heated debate. Russia followed suit, and the treaty entered into force earlier this year.

New START’s passage was a victory for nuclear arms control and a small step forward in repairing severely damaged Russian-U.S. relations. The treaty capped deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 for both countries, and placed limits on deployed and non-deployed strategic delivery vehicles. The agreement also required onsite inspections and data exchanges, and several of these have already taken place.

Whether the New START framework will prove to be useful for lowering nuclear numbers in the future remains uncertain. Part of this challenge is reflected in the debates over how to address their tactical nuclear arsenals. When considering whether NATO should agree to remove U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe without Russia giving up its tactical arsenal, one often hears the question: “Why should the United States or NATO give Russia something for nothing?” The question reflects the philosophy that, like New START, nuclear weapons can be compared and “traded” for reductions by the other side, but what do the “something” and “nothing” represent in this context?

The use of the word “something” implies that the B-61 free-fall bombs based in Europe have significant value for NATO and pose a threat to Russia. The situation has changed geographically and technologically, however, since the weapons were deployed in Europe during the Cold War. In any future crisis between Moscow and Washington, the United States and allies would threaten the use of long-range strategic nuclear weapons, if they were to increase the nuclear threat at all. The B-61s in Europe are simply too cumbersome for use by allies when compared to other options. Moreover, the tactical arsenals are very asymmetrical when compared to the strategic balance. Russia is thought to have thousands more tactical nuclear weapons, but does not deploy these weapons in other countries as does the United States.

To say that NATO’s removal of the weapons without Russia doing the same would result in receiving “nothing” from Moscow is true in a short-term bargaining sense. This implication, however, leaves out the historical context of the past 20 years in which the Soviet Union dissolved, NATO moved eastward, and the alliance became militarily stronger overall when compared to Russia.

NATO has already decided that these old bombs should not come out of Europe until Russia agrees to “reciprocal” measures. This overall demand is vague enough to allow for an arrangement that could be more flexible or different than a New START-type treaty. Whatever they agree, the United States and NATO would still “get something” for the withdrawal of these bombs, including the ability to point to having made concrete progress on reducing nuclear arsenals – a win for promoting nuclear non-proliferation, and also progress on NATO’s own aspirations for efficiency by getting rid of weapons that no longer serve a military purpose.

The author’s opinions are her own. This is the final ‘This Week’ opinion piece from BASIC this year. We plan to restart on 3 January 2012.

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