What’s next for START follow-on?

Pavel PODVIG, Acting Associate Director for Research, CISAC, Stanford University

Observatoire de la non-prolifération, Centre d’Etudes de Sécurité Internationale et de Maîtrise des armements, No. 40,  JUILLET/AOÛT 2009

The U.S.-Russian summit held earlier this month in Moscow marked a good beginning for the relationships between the two administrations. The arms control agreement received the most attention, mostly because it was the most tangible result of the meeting, but also because of the urgency involved – the START Treaty expires on December and in order to get the new treaty done by then, the presidents had to demonstrate some substantial progress in negotiations. They have done so fairly well – the United States and Russia agreed that the new treaty will reduce the number of operationally deployed warheads to 1500-1675 and the number of launchers – to 500-1100 on each side.

The reduction in warheads is hardly dramatic – the current limit, set by the Moscow treaty, is 2200. The reduction schedule is not very demanding either – the reductions would take up to seven years. Also, the agreement indicates that there are significant differences in the number of launchers that the sides want to see. Russia is pushing for the lower number – it has some 600 launchers today and would like to see the U.S. number (about 1200) reduced. The United States, on the other hand, is reluctant to eliminate its delivery systems – it would much rather convert its launchers for conventional missions. Besides, the U.S. administration is reluctant to commit to more substantial steps, like a dramatic cut of its ICBM force, before it completes its Nuclear Posture Review process.

If the two sides are committed to having the new treaty ready by December, then about the only possibility would be to find a compromise on the number of launchers, with the final number being closer to 1100 than to 500. This would still represent about 30 percent reduction, compared to the current START limit of 1600 launchers. Another issue – missile defense – also drew significant attention during the talks. The key point of disagreement is the U.S. plans to deploy elements of its missile defense in Eastern Europe. Russia has been strenuously opposing this deployment and has tried to force the United States to abandon it. This presented the current U.S. administration with a difficult choice – it has been quite skeptical about the previous administration missile defense plans, but it can hardly afford to leave an impression that it has yielded to Russia’s pressure on the issue.

The documents signed in Moscow were carefully worded to make sure that both sides could claim victory – while there is no direct link between missile defense and offensive force reductions, the sides agreed to discuss this issue further. More importantly, they agreed to work together to monitor missile developments in the region. This cooperation, if it is done right, could go a long way toward taking the heat off the missile defense issue. The Moscow summit was the first and largely successful step in the right direction – toward the normalization of relations and further reductions of their nuclear arsenals. There is still a good chance that the new treaty will be done in time, making sure that the nuclear disarmament momentum is preserved.