Assessing the New U. S.-Russian Pact

By Holum, John | Arms Control Today, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Assessing the New U. S.-Russian Pact


Holum, John, Arms Control Today


STRATEGIC OFFENSIVE REDUCTIONS TREATY

Aside from the number of warheads and delivery vehicles the United States and Russia actually deploy, the treaty essentially regards each side's nuclear posture as its own business.

The Bush administration should be congratulated for completing an arms control treaty and for doing so in a timely manner. This new treaty further defines an important truth: the Cold War is long over and the United States and Russia are no longer adversaries.

As compared to previous administrations, including those of President Reagan and the first President Bush, it is fair to say that the current administration is not generally enamored of formal arms control. This is not an observation that anyone in the administration would dispute, and it is reflected in the administration's approach to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and UN efforts to control small arms.

The administration's wariness of arms control is also reflected in its initial approach to strategic offensive nuclear arms reductions. The Bush team originally wanted to reduce the number of deployed offensive arms by unilateral decisions and to confirm these decisions with a handshake rather than a legally binding agreement. As reflected in January's nuclear posture review, the administration also apparently sees a larger and more durable role for nuclear weapons in international affairs. For example, the review explicitly suggests their use in response to nonnuclear attacks.

In that context, this new treaty, to some extent, represents a reversal of the administration's unilateral approach. However, the treaty does not point to a major reversal. Aside from the number of warheads and delivery vehicles each side actually mates up and deploys, the treaty essendally regards each side's nuclear posture as its own business. It is also up to each side whether they will actually eliminate any of the nuclear weapons they remove from deployment.

The new treaty sets aside some arms control gains in START II. That treaty would have eliminated all remaining land-based missiles with multiple warheads, most significantly more than 150 Russian SS-18 heavy missiles with 10 warheads each, long considered a potential first-strike weapon. With the new treaty, the administration is effectively abandoning START II and this key limit on multiple-warhead ICBMs.

Because the new treaty gives Washington and Moscow until 2012 to get down to the 1,700-2,200 warhead range, the number of warheads deployed in the interim are likely to be higher than they would have been under START II. Even as extended in 1997, that treaty would have taken the two sides down to 3,500 warheads by 2007, and relevant delivery vehicles would have been deactivated by 2003. Under the new treaty's timetable and the nuclear posture review, the United States will still have some 3,800 warheads in 2008.

Furthermore, it is disappointing that in the closing days of the discussions on the new treaty, efforts to adopt new transparency measures that may have helped to get a handle on the large numbers of Russian tactical nuclear weapons were apparently dropped. Washington and Moscow had agreed to address these weapons in the context of START III negotiations, which have also now been abandoned.

On the flip side, the advantages the United States can claim from the treaty fall principally in the realm of military flexibility. The Pentagon can develop its nuclear force structure without requirements to meet detailed treaty limitations, and, of course, there is no longer any link between strategic reductions and constraints on missile defenses, as there would have been with the agreements linked to START II's entry into force.

The treaty should go down fairly well in Russia. President Putin came to the negotiating table with virtually no leverage. …

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