international analysis and commentary

The New START: a fundamental achievement – but not a panacea

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The new US-Russia treaty on nuclear arms control is extremely important, and it is good news for international security. However, it does not represent a dramatic step forward toward a nuclear-free world, nor does it resolve the disputes between Moscow and Washington on the Obama plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Indeed, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) puts in place an updated verification regime and envisages a limited reduction of American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Regarding the new limits for nuclear arsenals, the new and legally binding agreement includes provisions on both warheads and launchers. First, each side is allowed to deploy a maximum of 1,550 warheads. Second, each country can deploy no more than 700 delivery systems, including deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear arms. However, each bomber counts as one warhead irrespective of ther fact that it might carry multiple bombs or missiles. In addition, 100 non-deployed launchers are allowed on each side, for example in the case of missiles removed from submarines under maintenance.

The scope of the cuts in terms of warheads and launchers has to be evaluated in light of both previous commitments and current realities on the ground. Regarding the commitments, the last treaty on nuclear arms control reached in Moscow in 2002 by presidents Bush and Putin (SORT – Strategic Offensive arms Reductions Treaty) set a range of limits for warheads between 1,700 and 2,200. That is the reason the White House stresses the fact that the current limit (1,550) represents roughly a 30% cut compared to the previous maximum. However, if we consider the lower SORT threshold (1,700) the reduction is more limited. On the ground, Russian and American nuclear arsenals are already close to this level, and thus to the new limits. Indeed, the Arms Control Association estimates that the US has to cut around a hundred warheads, and Russia two hundreds. When it comes to launchers, the situation is even clearer. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the US has 798 delivery systems deployed, which means it will have to cut just 12% of its arsenal, while Russia’s arsenal is already way below the new limits, as Moscow is now deploying just 566 launchers. Moreover, the warheads limitation refers only to those deployed, while there is no limit for the ones in storage: those can be maintained without being destroyed. However, it is likely that part of the warheads stored will be dismantled in any case in order to save the funds necessary to their maintenance.

In the context of the treaty, the new verification regime appears to be more important than the ceilings. In fact, the 2002 SORT did not have its own verification regime and relied instead on the one established by the original START signed in 1991. As this treaty has expired last December, the new START fills a dangerous vacuum in the nuclear arms control domain. Is also updates the verification regime, replacing outmoded ways of checking the fulfilment of mutual commitments with, among other methods, state of the art satellite imagery. Another important provision is the ability for each side to carry out physical on-site inspections of the counterpart’s arsenal. Data exchanges and notifications will complete the set of tools to ensure the compliance with the text’s provisions. The update of the verification regime, coupled with the extent of the limits, demonstrate that the treaty is really about arms control rather than disarmament. It is clear that under the 10-year treaty both the US and Russia will maintain their nuclear deterrence capability fully intact. In addition, each side has to implement the reductions within a pretty extended timeline: seven years since the ratification of the treaty.

Having said that, the Obama administration has many reasons to be satisfied with the new START treaty. First, it is a concrete and lasting guarantee for global nuclear security. Second, American public diplomacy can present it as a step forward on the long path towards the nuclear-free world envisioned by Obama (the “zero option”), and above all as an example to be followed by Iran and the countries engaged in the next TNP negotiations. Third, it contributes to improve the bilateral relationship with Moscow, as the Kremlin has attached great importance to the new treaty. Indeed, from a Russian perspective, the formal cuts envisaged in the new text were necessary to maintain the strategic balance – essentially forcing the US to reduce its nuclear arsenal while Russia is already doing so due to its structural inability to maintain the current assets. In other words, the treaty allows Moscow to mask the weakness of the Russian nuclear deterrence, and military budget, under the cover of a deliberate choice for the sake of world peace. Second, president Medvedev was looking forward to a personal success on the international stage, mostly for domestic consumption: he can now claim his own ability, out of Putin’s shadow, to promote Russian interests vis-à-vis by the United States in a sort of “win-win” spirit: indeed, at the Prague ceremony he underlined that “the main thing is that there are no victors or losers here.”

Nevertheless, the new treaty does not necessarily imply a solution for other disputed strategic issue, beginning with Obama’s missile plans in Eastern Europe – which repeatedly delayed negotiations. Although the Kremlin has argued that the new agreement somehow links nuclear deterrence and missile defence, the White House has officially stated that “the treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned US missile defence programs or long range conventional strike capabilities”, thus clarifying the non-binding nature of the wording on such linkage in the treaty’s preamble. It is not by accident that few days after the announcement of the agreement, and before the signing ceremony, Foreign Minister Lavrov has claimed Russia’s right to abandon the new treaty if the American anti-missile plans should affect the effectiveness of Russian strategic forces. This sort of threat can be seen as part of Moscow’s public diplomacy, and it is unlikely to be carried out because Moscow genuinely needs the treaty to cover the ongoing decline of its nuclear deterrence capabilities. Yet the issue is bound to come up again, as disagreements on the US missile shield are likely to continue well beyond the Prague ceremony – where President Medvedev did not miss the opportunity to make a direct reference to them.

In conclusion, the Obama administration has undeniably achieved an important success with the signing of the new treaty. But there will be no panacea effects on the bilateral relationship, and the path towards a nuclear-free world remains as uncertain as ever.