Another Missed Opportunity for START III?

Another Missed Opportunity for START III?

  • 17 January 2010

After eight months, seven rounds of talks, several meetings at the ministerial and presidential levels, the United States and Russia failed to reach agreement on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START III) to replace START I, which expired on December 5, 2009. That was the first missed deadline to reduce the strategic nuclear arsenals of the two countries by at least a quarter in seven years (nuclear warheads: to about 1,500-1,675, delivery vehicles: to about 500 to 1,100), according to the Moscow agreement signed by Presidents Barak Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in last July.

The first missed deadline to complete START III was followed by a couple of other lost opportunities (before the end of 2009 and during the Obama-Medvedev meeting on December 18 in Copenhagen). Although Washington and Moscow issued a joint statement on December 4, asserting that START I still applies, this is not really the case. For one thing, without the consent of the US Senate, expired treaties have no effect. Second, Russia has already pulled out American inspectors from some of its missile production sites.

Notwithstanding, START talks will resume in Geneva, possibly after mid-January, although no date has been set. The question now is: Will the two parties be able to seal a deal before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference scheduled for May 2010 or miss another opportunity?

Analysts and experts are divided on this question. Some are optimistic that the eighth round of negotiations will result in a deal on strategic armament before the NPT review conference, which obliges nuclear powers to show progress on disarmament. They aver that both sides want to reach—sooner than later—agreements, as most of its provisions have already been agreed upon. Others are pessimistic about a pact before May. They argue that talks will take several months, not weeks as deliberations between the US and Russia show a level of mistrust that still shrouds their relations.

Irrespective of the two divergent viewpoints, there are many real obstacles facing US and Russian negotiators striving to complete START III. The stumbling blocks include US plans to build a missile defense system around Europe, the controversial link between missile offense and defense, and limits on deployed warheads, strategic delivery vehicles and stored weapons.

To begin with, Russian premier Vladimir Putin stated on December 29 that American plans to deploy a new missile defense system around Europe constitute the main obstacle in reaching a new START deal. He warned against US “aggressiveness” toward his country and disruption of the nuclear balance in case of executing these plans. To protect Russia’s national security and to preserve the balance, Russia must develop new offensive weapons, Putin asserted. He asked Washington to offer Moscow additional details on its missile defense plans. This is not a tactic to win more US concessions in START talks. Russia has long claimed that the missile-defense system would force it to develop new strategic armaments. In addition, President Dmitry Medvedev affirmed on December 24 that Russia would continue to develop long-range nuclear weapons after it signs START III because “without them we cannot defend our country”. If the Russians insist on the US abandoning or limiting missile defenses as part of a new START pact, “it would be a huge obstacle in the talks. It would make the treaty very hard, if not impossible, to conclude,” according to Steven Pifer, a Russia analyst with the Brookings Institution.

The bottom line is that the relationship between offensive weapons and missile defense has caused a huge rift between the two countries. Russians have sought to address both issues in the current START talks. The US has refused to include its missile defense plans in the negotiations. Responding to Putin’s abovementioned remarks, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly reiterated that “while the US has long agreed that there is a relationship between missile offense and defense, we believe the START follow-on agreement is not the appropriate vehicle for addressing it.”

The two sides also continue to disagree over limits on strategic delivery vehicles under the new treaty. Strategic delivery vehicles, including long-range nuclear missiles and bombers, have the capacity to carry multiple, independently targeted weapons. The question remains, should a treaty reduce the number of delivery vehicles available to each country, the number of deployed warheads or both? This is a very contentious issue as the US possesses more delivery vehicles—mostly half-empty—than Russia, which keeps its bombers and missiles more heavily armed to maintain the balance. As a result, Russians would like to limit the number of delivery vehicles the two sides keep in their arsenals, while Americans prefer reducing the actual warheads.

This issue is further complicated when it is linked to stored warheads, in which the US far exceeds the Russian number and which the new treaty would not cover. Russians fear that if the US is allowed a vast force of half-empty missiles and bombers, it could in time of war quickly arm them with its stored weapons—and thus have the capacity for an overwhelming "first-strike" that could take out the more heavily concentrated Russian nuclear weapons. This concern is already fomenting distrust between the sides. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists observes: "This is a very important issue and one, I suspect, that has been the biggest cause of delays."

The most serious problems facing START III talks arise from the fact that the two countries are at different stages in their strategic military development. Russia is actively modernizing offensive weapons, while the US is building missile defense. The new treaty would require Russia to share information and allow inspection with regard to producing and testing new strategic missiles, especially its new RS-24 ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles). The US, meanwhile, would be under no obligation to do the same because it is not building any new offensive missiles. In short, Russians complain this deal is not fair.

The whole negotiation process has been complicated by the intervention of the US Senate. On December 16, a group of 41 Senators sent a letter to President Obama asking for modernizing America's nuclear arsenal along with any new START pact. Without modernization, they warn, the new treaty will have little or no chance of success. Obviously, the new treaty will limit US nuclear modernization, but the President will need 67 Senate votes to approve any arms-control treaty.

If the abovementioned differences can be addressed and the two parties reach an accord, they could pursue—as planned—a broader agreement to further reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads and tackle new categories of nuclear weapons never been subject to international treaties. These comprise stored warheads and tactical bombs. According to some estimates, Washington owns about 3,000 strategic stored warheads and 500-1200 tactical weapons, while Russia posses about 1,000 long-rage weapons and 3000-8000 tactical warheads.

However, the failure to reach a new deal before May would have highly adverse implications for the nuclear non-proliferation cause in the world. Without this, it would be hard for both countries—especially the US—to convince others to check the spread of nuclear weapons. More important, it would belie expectations that were raised after President Barack Obama’s famous speech in Prague in April 2009, where he pledged to move forward on the abolition of nuclear weapons.