#30 - JRL 2009-229 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
December 15, 2009
Speed Bargaining
It Took Nine Years to Negotiate START I, But Russian and American Negotiators Have Just Months to Come Up With a Replacement

By Alexander Pikaev
Alexander Pikaev, Ph.D. in political science, is the head of the disarmament and conflict regulation division at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the director of the Russian program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.

The first Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START I) expired on December 5 this year. And despite pledges to continue “in the spirit” of the document, the fact is that until a replacement treaty is negotiated, Russia and the United States are without a bilateral regime ensuring the limitation and transparency of their nuclear arsenals. To make matters worse, the negotiators face a tight deadline ­ the new treaty should be ready by May of 2010.

START I was signed by the Soviet Union and the United States back in 1991. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan inherited this document. The latter three simultaneously joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear powers. The document took effect on December 5, 1994. It was meant to last for 15 years.

The START I treaty marked the peak of the Soviet-American process of controlling strategic armaments. It presupposed a reduction of strategic offensive arms to 1,600 units, and a reduction of nuclear warheads to 6,000 units on each side. At that, the number of warheads mounted on ballistic missiles was not to exceed 4,900. At the time of the treaty’s signing, the United States and the Soviet Union each possessed some 10,000 to 11,000 strategic nuclear warheads. Besides the significant reductions, the treaty encompassed a very detailed and intrusive verification procedure. All of the quantitative limits that the document contained were implemented within the stated timeframe.

The START I treaty contained a clause on the sides’ ability to extend it for five years. However, a few procedures had to be followed in order to achieve this: the decision should have been made by the five-sided joint commission on implementation and verification no later than a year before the treaty expired. The committee did meet in 2008, but did not make this decision, and thus the opportunity to automatically extend the terms of the treaty was missed.

On December 5, the presidents of the United States and Russia announced their intent to keep acting “in the spirit” of the treaty. In other words, they are no longer bound by the terms of this document. For the first time in decades, Moscow and Washington found themselves in a situation where the bilateral regime that ensured the limitation and transparency of their strategic offensive arms arsenals was no longer functioning.

New Treaty American Style

In essence, the START I treaty was the only international legal document that regulated the verifiable reductions of strategic nuclear arms in both countries and kept them at a level half that which existed at the end of the Cold War. Moreover, the verification regime that the document established was instrumental for another Russian-American document ­the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) which was signed in 2002 and is in effect for ten years. But without the START I treaty, SORT turns into no more than a legally-binding declaration that cannot be enforced.

The previous American administration bears the responsibility for this status quo. Between 2002 and 2007 it outright refused to discuss the question of further reductions in strategic offensive arsenals. Back in 2006, Russia appealed to the United States with an offer to discuss the issue of replacing START I. The American side seemed uninterested in this offer, suggesting simply preserving the protocol on implementation and verification that was being used as the foundation for SORT.

In 2007 and 2008 the two sides consulted each other on a new document, but failed to settle their differences. In 2007, Moscow and Washington agreed that START I should be replaced by a legally binding document, but the George Bush administration did not settle on a position that would allow the new document to be filled with concrete content. As a result a lot of time was lost, and Moscow and Washington were unable to lay the groundwork for rapid negotiations in 2009 before the change of administration in the White House.

Unlike the republicans, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration chose a rather energetic approach to settling on a new agreement. In April of 2009, when he met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London, they were able to agree on resuming consultations so that a new treaty could be prepared before START I expired. The chief negotiator on the American side was Rose Gottemoeller, an experienced politician who headed the Moscow Carnegie Center for three years.

Following two months of intense negotiations, the Russian and American diplomats agreed on the main framework of the future agreement, fixed in a memorandum of understanding signed after Obama’s visit to Russia in June 2009. The sides agreed that the new document will contain a full-fledged verification procedure as well as a clause on the interdependency of strategic offensive and defensive arms. The Russian side also asked for quantitative limits to be placed on strategic delivery vehicles and on the warheads associated with them. The text of the mutual understanding memorandum states that Russia and the United States have set the ceiling for strategic delivery vehicles at 500 to 1,100 units, and for warheads at 1,500 to 1,675­less than the numbers stated in the 2002 SORT treaty.

Nonetheless, despite Washington drastically altering its position and both sides wanting to make a new agreement as soon as possible, the negotiations ran into a host of difficulties. These were partly due to the transitions taking place in the United States. As a rule, it takes a few months to shape up a new administration, and it takes time to appoint and approve officials for key positions. For Obama’s administration, the appointment process ended in April to May of 2009.

This was followed by a review of policies inherited from the previous president, and setting of new priorities in the areas of national security, defense and nuclear armament. Obama’s administration set out to conduct a regular four-year review of defense programs and an associated review of nuclear policy. However, conducting these reviews has turned out to be a rather complex task. Obama came to power with the slogan of “change” and declared his support for the goal of a nuclear-free world, but it is unlikely that the middle-range bureaucrats involved in the review of the nuclear policy would support these ideas. As a result, the review was not finished by December 1 as planned.

Traditionally, the United States does not sign agreements that limit the size of its arsenal or narrow its choice of armaments without conducting internal debates on the number and structure of its strategic offensive arms, so it was always unlikely that a new long-term treaty would be signed in 2009.

The negotiations are being held in a closed format, and there is little information on either of the sides’ positions. But it can be safely assumed that there are significant differences on a number of key issues. For example, Russia and the United States agreed in principle that the verification procedure mentioned in START I should be simplified. But this voluminous protocol contains a large number of mutual compromises on tens if not hundreds of very complex technological issues. It took years to put it together, and establishing a new array of compromises may require lengthy meetings of groups of technological experts, which have not been held.

Despite the agreement that the interdependence of strategic offensive and defensive arms should be mentioned in the treaty, settling on the concrete text will inevitably be more difficult. Russia will most likely try to make this clause stricter in order to limit America’s ability set up anti-missile systems, while the United States will not agree to more than a few vague lines.

Furthermore, Russia and the United States most likely disagree over the means to be used when reducing the number of armaments. Moscow is primarily interested in their physical destruction, as the previous treaties, including START I, postulated. Washington, on the other hand, prefers reductions by means of so-called “unloading,” when the missiles remain in position while the “extra” warheads are dismounted. The warheads themselves are not destroyed, but stored next to the strategic offensive armaments bases. This allows for them to be quickly reinstalled should the need arise. As such, the United States would preserve a lot of its potential, which in case of its withdrawal from the treaty would allow it to quickly get the upper hand over Russia.

It should be noted that the American side’s unwillingness to significantly reduce its strategic offensive armaments makes one question the sincerity of the Obama administration’s calls for nuclear disarmament. Moreover, signing a treaty that presupposes strategic nuclear arms reductions by means of arithmetic and statistical balancing can be subjected to serious criticism and accusations of trying to trick the other states and the international community at large.

Certainly, these contradictions can be overcome. But it will take a long time to settle them in a way that is acceptable to both sides, and time is one thing the negotiators do not have. The real negotiations started only in May of 2009. In other words, the delegates were supposed to come up with a new agreement in just seven months, where as the negotiations on START I lasted for some nine years.

As far as we know, since the end of November the United States and Russia have been in constant consultations on a new agreement in Geneva. The sides claim that they are nearly finished. From diplomatic practice it is also known that when running out of time, the negotiators try to bargain for the best terms at the last minute.

Rumors had it that the new treaty could be signed right after Barack Obama received his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10. It didn’t happen. At present, the last opportunity to sign a new treaty this year is the climate change summit in Copenhagen, where Barack Obama could potentially meet with Dmitry Medvedev.

If a new treaty is not signed at the Copenhagen conference, its signing will most likely be postponed until spring. The delegations will leave Geneva for the Christmas and New Year holidays. After that, some time will be needed in a calm atmosphere to look over the results achieved and agree on the time and place of the next round of negotiations. The additional three to four months would provide the opportunity to better agree on a number of sensitive points, and as a result to come up with a more detailed document better suited to the interests of both sides.

The true deadline for signing the document is the Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which is supposed to take place in May of 2010 in New York. At this conference, non-nuclear countries will most likely broach the issue of the nuclear powers’ fulfilling their nuclear disarmament responsibilities. Here, a new agreement would be quite appropriate.

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