U.S.-Russian arms control statements are getting shorter and shorter. In the most recent one, a joint statement by Condoleezza Rice and Sergey Lavrov released today, is three short paragraphs long. The United States and Russia “reiterated their intention to carry out strategic offensive reductions”, but said that the new lower levels should be “consistent with their national security requirements and alliance commitments”, which are more or less code words for “we’ll do as we darn please”.

Speaking seriously, now that a “straight-forward extension” of the treaty, as described in the Article XVII.2, is all but impossible, the question is what Russia and the United States can do to make a “post-START arrangement” meaningful yet practical.

I just wrote in a Bulletin Online column that the greatest value of the START Treaty today is not the limits on numbers of warheads established by the treaty, but rather the framework of transparency and interaction between the military that it maintains. This is not to say that the numbers are not important. They are. But I don’t see why we should pick another artificial number, whether it is 1500, 500, or 100 warheads. We should agree instead that the goal should be zero and concentrate on developing a practical mechanism that would make this possible. In this process, transparency, accountability and trust-building measures are more important and any specific numeric limit.

In practical terms, what the United States and Russia could do for their post-START lives is to agree that they won’t specify any limits on their strategic forces, but will continue data exchange, all kind of notifications, and some (but probably not all) inspections. This would require going through the text of the treaty and all kind of annexes to see what there is worth keeping. I’m sure there is a useful core there that would provide reasonable degree of transparency at reasonable cost.

The idea of keeping the transparency provisions of the START Treaty is the least controversial of all proposals surrounding START and has supporters in all quarters. To make it work we should recognize that transparency and accountability are valuable in their own right and should be kept regardless of whether Russia and the United States agree on any specific reduction levels. If they are determined to do as they please, we'd better make sure that we can keep an eye on them.