SORT-Ing out START: Options for U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reductions

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American and Russian presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have committed their administrations to progress on strategic nuclear arms limitation. A new agreement to replace the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I) was drafted in July 2009 and may be ready for U.S. Senate ratification prior to the expiration of the treaty in December. (1) The favorable political winds on nuclear arms control between Washington and Moscow might open the door to further accomplishments in their agenda of shared security concerns. These possible areas of convergent interests include Afghanistan, Iran, and nonproliferation.

But nuclear arms control is more than a technical exercise. Embedded in the construction and negotiation of arms pacts are issues related to post--Cold War geopolitics, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enlargement, U.S. missile defenses deployed in Europe, and Russian military doctrine and reform. This article considers various options for U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear arms reductions within this larger politico-military context and offers provisional but timely assessment of prospects for success.

Reset

START and Other Issues. The Obama administration has indicated that it wants to "reset" the button on U.S. relations with Russia, in contrast with the upsurge of political disputes that characterized the latter years of the George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin presidencies. (2) The U.S. intention to move forward on Russia is a positive note for international relations. But the disagreements that characterized U.S. relations with Russia under Bush and Putin are not merely matters of tone. Instead, those areas of disagreement will carry forward into the Medvedev and Obama presidencies because they involve serious and substantive political and geostrategic differences. (3)

One area of possible and urgent security cooperation between Russia and the United States is the decision to either continue or replace the START I nuclear arms treaty, signed in 1991 and set to expire in December 2009. In part, START has been superseded by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) of May 2002, an agreement between the Bush and Putin administrations. SORT requires each state to reduce its operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 2,200 to 1,700 warheads by the end of 2012. (4) However, SORT provides for none of the monitoring and verification protocols so characteristic of Cold War--era U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements. In fact, SORT has piggybacked on the START protocols in this regard, but the expiration of START would leave SORT a verification-free radical. The table summarizes the START-accountable launchers and weapons for both the United States and Russia as of January 1, 2009.

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Agreement on a post-START and postSORT bilateral arms agreement is related to other important U.S. and Russian foreign policy objectives. Success or failure in nuclear arms control is also connected to broader issues that mark diplomatic and military fault lines, as between America and Russia. These issues include:

* NATO relations with Russia

* Russian cooperation with the United States and NATO over Afghanistan and Iraq

* U.S.-Russian leadership as an essential constituent of a viable global nuclear nonproliferation regime

* U.S. plans under Bush, now apparently under review by Obama, to deploy elements of the American global missile defense system in Poland and in the Czech Republic.

It would be impossible to do justice to each of these issues in a single article, but their connection to the progress or lack thereof in nuclear arms control is important to appreciate. Russia's objectives in restarting START are both political and military. The military objective of stable deterrence is also a political objective: to create a U.S.-Russian security space in which Russia is recognized as a coequal nuclear partner and, with the United States, as occupying a singular tier in the hierarchy of nuclear weapons states. …