The Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agenda after SORT

By Sokov, Nikolai | Arms Control Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agenda after SORT


Sokov, Nikolai, Arms Control Today


When the Russian Duma finally ratifies the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), will it mark the beginning of a new era of bilateral cooperation between Washington and Moscow or the closing chapter in arms control negotiations between Russia and the United States that sought to regulate the Cold War?

Russian officials have dubbed SORT the "last in the series of traditional arms control treaties,"1 stating that the new era of U.S.-Russian cooperation requires a new approach to arms control. They implicitly endorsed some-albeit not all-of the principles advocated by the Bush administration, namely, that the United States and Russia no longer need complicated, restrictive, and expensive arms control treaties.

Indeed, one can say that coupled with the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and START II, SORT marks the end of traditional arms control. Further reductions are unlikely in the near future because, after SORT is implemented, the United States and Russia will have reached what they feel is the optimal (or close to the optimal) level of strategic arsenals that they need: 2,200 deployed warheads for the United States and 1,500 for Russia. One possible additional step is codification of the ongoing reduction of Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons, but its chances are remote. More importantly, managing first-strike capability, which was the key motive of traditional arms control, is no longer urgent following the end of the Cold War.

Yet, there is now an opportunity and an objective need to usher in a new stage of arms control. During the SORT talks, negotiators broached, even if they were unable to fully implement, some guiding principles of an entirely new approach to arms control that would take advantage of improved Russian-American ties to move transparency and verification measures to a new level: taking such scrutiny beyond the level of missiles and other delivery systems to encompass the nuclear warheads themselves.

Given the closer ties between the two countries, the United States and Russia should be willing to subject themselves to more intrusive measures that encompass the full nuclear weapons infrastructure, including warhead storage sites and production and dismantlement facilities. SORT provides a framework for such an approach by instituting a regular series of bilateral meetings between the two countries. But turning this opportunity into reality will require strong political will.

The Bush administration's skepticism about arms control agreements has been well documented, and commentators are right to point out that, in their eagerness to curb the U.S. military advantage and preserve scarce budget dollars, Russian officials are generally more supportive of further nuclear arms control efforts. Russian arms control preferences, however, are also driven by a mix of complex, often contradictory domestic economic, political, and military impulses that could stymie progress.

Transparency of Warhead Arsenals

The need to fill in SORT's many blanks constitutes the core of the Russian arms control agenda for the coming years. The Kremlin's highest priority is finding a way to close what it sees as the treaty's biggest loophole-the ability of the United States to maintain thousands of spare nuclear warheads and not have them count against the treaty's limit of 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed warheads-those mounted on planes, missiles, and submarines. Russian officials fear that, in a crisis or downturn in relations, the United States will be able to return as many as 2,400 of these stored warheads to missiles and heavy bombers, bringing the total to 4,600. SORT allows such "uploading" without prior notification and, theoretically, even in secret.

Russia is not likely to have such an option. The Kremlin plans to reduce its arsenal primarily by eliminating delivery systems (old types of intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles), because it lacks resources to modernize the existing missiles or produce new ones in sufficient numbers.

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