Why the latest US-Russian arms control agreement is only a START

By Andrew Futter

The ‘New START’ Treaty signed by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on 8 April 2010 is an important step in the renewed drive for nuclear disarmament, but its overall contribution towards the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons should not be overstated. In some respects the treaty merely codifies the current status quo, and is arguably more about symbolism than it is about substance. Much of the hard work of reducing and potentially eliminating the vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons held by nations across the globe is still to be done. Before any meaningful multilateral talks on abolition can seriously begin, the US and Russia will need to take steps to actually reduce their nuclear weapons, as opposed to the numbers deployed. In fact, it will only be after US and Russian weapons stockpiles have been reduced to numbers in the hundreds that the push for more widespread reductions, and possibly abolition, can seriously and credibly begin. While many are aware of the problems of going from only a few nuclear weapons to zero, the first phase of the disarmament process, a phase that will involve reducing US and Russian nuclear stockpiles down to numbers more in line with that of other nuclear weapons states, will be a very difficult endeavour in its own right.

The New START treaty is important for a number of political, diplomatic and strategic reasons. First, it commits both the US and Russia to reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1550 and deployed delivery vehicles to 700 within seven years. The limit on deployed warheads represents a 65% cut from the limit contained in the original 1991 START I treaty, and is 30% below the limit in the 2002 Moscow Treaty. Of equal importance is the fact that the treaty contains a set of provisions that will allow each side to monitor and verify the deployed nuclear forces of the other, which will ensure a more stable U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship. On top of this, the new treaty is an important means to improve U.S.-Russian relations and sets the stage for discussions on deep nuclear reductions.

At the same time, however, the treaty changes very little. The US would have probably made further reductions in the number of its deployed weapons without a new agreement – and indeed may continue to do so even if the Senate does not ratify the treaty in the coming months. For their part, the Russians are already below New START’s limit on delivery vehicles, although the agreement will require them to reduce their deployed warheads. With or without the treaty neither side is likely to engage in renewed arms racing.

Though New START is an important step, deep cuts in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles will need to be made before smaller nuclear powers such as China, France, and the UK would be willing to join the disarmament process. However, both strategic and political pressures will make further significant reductions in US and Russian stockpiles very difficult to achieve. For example, continued and indeed increasing Russian reliance on nuclear weapons will make the pursuit of a follow-on to New START a particularly challenging task. Additionally, in the absence of truly joint missile defense efforts with Russia, meaningful constraints on U.S. missile defenses, of which New START contains none, will be a prerequisite for deeper U.S.-Russian reductions. Finally, domestic political obstacles in both countries, but especially in the U.S, could also stymie deeper cuts.

An enormous hurdle to further reductions is the increasing Russian political and strategic reliance on nuclear weapons. Moscow believes that its substantial nuclear arsenal is a guarantor of its ‘great power status,’ especially in light of the declining size, capability and professionalism of Russian conventional forces.

Missile defence is also likely to be a key stumbling block. In keeping with the approach of the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to protect U.S. freedom of action on missile defence. For example, the recently released Ballistic Missile Defense Review noted that “the [Obama] Administration will continue to reject any negotiated restraints on U.S. ballistic missile defenses.” The expansion of U.S. missile defences has caused concern in Moscow, particularly U.S. plans to deploy advanced land-based SM-3 inceptors in Eastern Europe. These plans were one of the main stumbling blocks that stalled negotiation of the New START agreement. The more the US and Russia reduce their nuclear arsenals the more important, and potentially destabilising, effective strategic missile defences will become. So long as Russia views U.S. missile defences as a threat to its deterrent, it will be unwilling to contemplate reductions below New START levels.

Yet another big hurdle will be to convince U.S. Senators and key members of the military that deep cuts are in the U.S. national interest. This will be difficult in part because of concern over the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs but mostly due to the view among many Republicans that Russia cannot be trusted. Further bilateral (or unilateral) reductions will likely be doubly difficult for a Democratic president. Republican presidents have had far more success in shepherding arms control agreements through the U.S. Senate. Agreements negotiated by Democrats have traditionally met with obstruction by Republicans.

The New START agreement is an important step on the road to nuclear disarmament but its actual relevance and importance in the larger quest for nuclear abolition is limited. The US and Russia will need to go much further than New START before they can credibly begin to call on other smaller nuclear powers to take part in the disarmament process. Although there will be pressures making further disarmament difficult in the United States, particularly for a Democrat President, it will be in Russia where the greatest stumbling blocks to this process will be found. Growing Russian reliance on nuclear weapons, not just for security but also for political and diplomatic reasons, will make further substantial reductions in the Russia nuclear arsenal a very difficult and heavy lift. While much attention has been paid to the latter stages of the problem of the road toward nuclear abolition, we may in fact need to concentrate far more on the significant problems of US-Russian nuclear reductions that must necessarily precede this.