Nuclear Disarmament: Problems and Prospects

2 march 2008

Victor Yesin

Resume: The stagnation that has settled in the field of nuclear arms control must be overcome. The control regime must be preserved. For all its imperfections, it is much better for international security than the absence of nuclear arms control. Such control may be lost after 2012 if the leaders of Russia and the United States do not display political will.

Disarmament issues, which faded into the background of global politics over the past decade, have become relevant again. The fate of treaties that once marked the end of bipolar confrontation is now in the focus of international attention. The situation in this sector requires a very careful analysis, as hasty actions may undermine international stability.

There are only bilateral treaties between Russia and the United States in the sphere of nuclear arms control. The participation of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine in the Soviet-U.S. Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START I Treaty) can be considered to be purely formal, especially as these countries now do not possess nuclear weapons.
Major nuclear arms control agreements between Moscow and Washington include the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the aforementioned START I Treaty, and the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT), better known as the Moscow Treaty. One can also add here unilateral initiatives on deep cuts in non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons, made by U.S. President George Bush Sr. and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

How do things stand now with the implementation of these treaties and initiatives, and with the verification of their implementation? Is there a need and is it feasible to prolong the existing agreements or to make some of them into new agreements?

The INF Treaty was signed on December 8, 1987 in Washington and came into force on June 1, 1988. The treaty has an unlimited duration. In 1991, the parties completed the destruction of weapons slated for reduction by the treaty. The Soviet Union destroyed 1,846 missiles, while the United States destroyed 846 missiles. Inspections by the two nations of each other’s military installations and verification of the termination of the production of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles continued for 10 years until the middle of 2001. At present, Russia and the United States monitor how the other complies with the INF Treaty by means of the national technical means of verification (NTM) and exchanges of notifications.

However, Moscow is concerned over tests conducted by the U.S. for the creation of its national missile defense system. These tests involve new ballistic target missiles which, in fact, are intermediate-range missiles. This can be viewed as a direct violation by the Americans of INF Treaty provisions. Attempts to clarify the situation within the Special Verification Commission (SVC), set up to oversee the implementation of the INF Treaty and work out measures to improve its effectiveness, are blocked by the U.S. (the last SVC session was held in October 2003). The United States has said since 2004 that it will not hold SVC sessions. Washington insists that Russia’s questions concerning the production of American ballistic target missiles are not directly relevant to the INF Treaty.

In fact, the United States only stands to lose from negotiations on unilateral violations of the INF Treaty. Diplomatic correspondence on this issue resembles a dialogue between a deaf man and a blind man, while Russia’s passivity makes it easy for the U.S. to violate the INF Treaty.

START I was signed on July 31, 1991, in Moscow and came into force on December 5, 1994. The treaty, which is to remain in force for 15 years, provides for a wide range of verification measures: observance by national technical means of verification; exchanges of data (notifications, telemetric information on missile launches, etc.), and 13 kinds of suspect-site inspections.
In accordance with START I, Russia and the U.S. completed the reduction of their strategic armaments on December 4, 2001, limiting them to 1,600 for deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers; and to 6,000 for warheads attributed to the above missiles and heavy bombers. The parties fulfilled their commitments and reduced the number of deployed strategic delivery vehicles and warheads attributed to them: Russia – to 1,136 delivery vehicles and 5,518 warheads, and the United States – to 1,238 delivery vehicles and 5,949 warheads.

As of January 1, 2007, in keeping with the START I counting rules, the respective number of deployed strategic delivery vehicles and warheads attributed to them was 880 and 4,162 in Russia, and 1,225 and 5,866 in the U.S.

When reducing nuclear weapons under START I, Russia actually eliminated its armaments, while the United States largely used its treaty-stipulated right to “lower” the number of warheads attributed to deployed ICBMs and SLBMs. In reality, the U.S. eliminated only an insignificant part of its strategic delivery vehicles. Thus, the United States has created the so-called breakout potential in its strategic offensive forces, which enables it to build up its arsenal of deployed strategic nuclear warheads by more than 3,000 units within four to six months if necessary.

As regards the verification of the implementation of START I, Russia today has much less capability than the United States in this field, although initially there was a parity between the two countries. Due to reduced financing for verification measures, for several years Russian specialists have not been using the established quota for suspect-site inspections, conducting about half of such inspections. In addition, the shortage of national technical means of verification, above all surveillance satellites, does not give Russia any compensation for the reduced monitoring activities. In May 2001, Russia even terminated the continuous monitoring over the missile-producing Hercules plant in Magna, Utah.

In contrast, Americans fully use the established quota for on-site inspections every year. For example, in 2005 they carried out 47 inspections of facilities of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. U.S. specialists still conduct continuous monitoring over the missile-producing Votkinsk machine-building plant in Udmurtia. In addition, American NTM have virtually unlimited capabilities.

Selective inspections carried out by Russia have revealed several violations by the U.S. of START I provisions. The violations included the testing of a Trident II SLBM; the shore-based support for strategic submarines at an undeclared facility, namely Cape Canaveral; and the conversion of silo launchers for ICBMs and SLBM launchers into launchers for armaments of other types (in particular, interceptor missiles and cruise missiles). In addition, the inspections revealed uncontrolled production of the Castor 120 first rocket stage, which is interchangeable with the first stage of the MX ICBM and therefore is subject to control under START I as a strategic delivery vehicle. Americans, however, declare this rocket stage as a “commercial” first stage.

Russia’s complaints about the above violations are regularly discussed at Geneva sessions of the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission (JCIC), set up under START I, but Americans have not yet allayed Russia’s concerns over their departure from START I provisions. There is an impression that the violations by the United States of individual provisions of START I are not incidental, but are part of a consistent policy intended to erode the treaty’s verification mechanism in order to ensure unilateral advantages for the American military-industrial complex involved in the development of advanced strategic weapon systems.

The inclusion of a new type of SLBM, the RSM-56 (Bulava), and the RS-24 ICBM in the START I legal field, as well as the beginning of their flight tests in 2005 and 2007, respectively, were new major stages in the implementation of START I by Russia. Also, Moscow openly announced its new strategic offensive armaments facility – the Kapustin Yar test range. It appeared as a result of a Russian Defense Ministry decision to carry out launches of the RS-12M (Topol) ICBM to test combat equipment of ICBMs and SLBMs.

The SORT Treaty was signed on May 24, 2002 in Moscow and came into force on June 1, 2003. The treaty expires on December 31, 2012. By that time, Russia and the United States must reduce and limit their deployed strategic nuclear warheads so that the aggregate number of such warheads does not exceed 1,700-2,200 for each party (which is approximately three times lower than the limits for warheads established by START I).

The SORT Treaty’s format makes it basically different from START I. SORT does not provide for verification mechanisms or stage-by-stage implementation of the parties’ commitments. The parties only reiterated their commitment to START I, which expires in December 2009.

Moscow and Washington fulfill the SORT Treaty in accordance with their own concepts for building nuclear forces. Russia is guided by the expediency of really liquidating delivery vehicles for strategic nuclear warheads so that by the end of 2012 it could achieve the levels specified by the SORT Treaty. The United States prefers to use the START I practice, when the reduction of deployed strategic nuclear warheads is achieved mainly by “downloading” warheads from delivery vehicles or converting the latter to fulfill non-nuclear missions.

This situation has made it necessary to form new confidence-building and predictability measures, especially as this is provided for by the Joint Declaration on New Strategic Relationship, signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in Moscow together with the SORT Treaty. Such efforts are made on Russia’s initiative. In April and October 2005, Russia formally submitted the relevant proposals to the Bilateral Implementation Commission (BIC), which provide for control and verification measures. However, the American delegation to the BIC has been very passive. The Russian proposals remain unconsidered, and Washington does not view them as necessary. The U.S. insists that regular exchanges of data between the two parties at BIC sessions on the state of their strategic nuclear weapons are enough to achieve transparency with regard to strategic offensive armaments.

The parties have also not yet reached agreement on how to count strategic nuclear warheads subject to limitation under the SORT Treaty.

The Americans believe that warheads to be counted under SORT in ground-based and sea-based strategic nuclear forces comprise only “operationally deployed nuclear warheads” in ICBMs and SLBMs that are on alert during a specific period of time. This approach ignores missile systems that can be quickly put on alert. And here Americans have an obvious advantage over Russians.

The U.S. approach concerning practical implementation of the SORT Treaty is aimed at evading the working out and harmonization of any measures and mechanisms for verifying its implementation. Also, Washington is reluctant to structure and specify information on the state of strategic nuclear weapons, which the parties exchange. Obviously, the United States seeks to obtain unilateral advantages through its exceptionally high capacity to quickly build up the potential of its strategic offensive forces. In contrast, Russia has a very limited capacity with regard to the breakout potential of its strategic nuclear forces.

It is difficult to foresee how discussions in the Bilateral Implementation Commission will further proceed, although there are serious grounds to believe that Washington will continue to ignore Moscow’s concern.

As regards the implementation of the unilateral initiatives of 1991 on reductions of tactical nuclear weapons, it should be noted that these initiatives are a classic example of an informal regime which, thanks to well-balanced mutual concessions, allowed the parties to achieve very impressive results within a short period of time. At the same time, the parties avoided many difficulties inevitable in the course of negotiations, such as the ratification process, whose dependence on internal political developments was vividly demonstrated by the Russian-American START II Treaty, which was signed on January 3, 1993 in Moscow, but which has never entered into force.

Of course, an informal regime has its drawbacks, as it is based not on legal obligations, but on political statements.

However, in the last decade of the 20th century, when relations of trust were established between Moscow and Washington, neither party had any suspicions that the other party was not fulfilling its unilateral commitments. As a result, by the end of 2001 the arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia were reduced by about 70 percent. The parties also resolved the issue of sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles, which are a long-range weapon. The missiles were removed from warships and submarines and were stored in arsenals.

An assessment of how Moscow and Washington are implementing their nuclear arms control agreements suggests that, despite some friction in their relations, the parties are fulfilling their commitments regarding compliance with the required levels of the reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons. This undoubtedly has a positive impact on international stability. However, the time is approaching when the START I and SORT Treaties will expire, and their future remains uncertain. This situation may bring about complete chaos in the sphere of nuclear arms control.

What must be done to avoid a negative scenario?

First of all, the parties must resume a high-level dialogue on nuclear arms control issues.

In March 2007, in accordance with the agreement reached by Vladimir Putin and George Bush a year earlier, Russian and U.S. officials met in Berlin to discuss the future of START I. Commenting on these consultations, Daniel Fried, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said the parties would discuss “transparency issues for the post-START regime after the START Treaty expires.”

It seems, however, that such a negotiating format is too narrow and the parties will not make any headway in nuclear arms control if they do not broaden it. START I and SORT are mutually dependent. They regulate rules of conduct for the parties in one and the same area, namely strategic nuclear armaments. Therefore the future of these treaties must be negotiated simultaneously. Also, such an approach is advantageous tactically, as it will give more room for compromises. Besides, the negotiations should be put on a high level. Without this, expert estimates will prevail in the negotiations, and former experience shows that such estimates are very difficult to harmonize. Political decisions are required to achieve success.

On the whole, considering Washington’s desire to equip its strategic missiles with non-nuclear warheads, Moscow should insist on signing a new legally binding treaty. This treaty would replace START I and SORT and would provide for a specific mechanism of control over strategic offensive armaments, taking into account both nuclear and non-nuclear warheads. The position of some members of the Russian leadership, who believe that equipping strategic delivery vehicles with non-nuclear warheads is inadmissible, can hardly be considered viable. Experience has shown that if the parties want to reach agreement, they should take into account each other’s interests. Otherwise – as was the case, for example, with attempts to adapt the Soviet-U.S. Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed on May 26, 1972 in Moscow, to a changed international environment – the result will a priori be negative. Since the Americans seek to possess strategic armaments equipped with non-nuclear warheads, Russia must take this into account and focus its diplomatic efforts on the introduction of reasonable limitation to minimize damage to its strategic stability from the deployment of such weapons. An uncompromising position will backfire on Russia when the United States will get its own way.

Russia and the U.S. have also been actively discussing of late the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). An opinion has formed recently in Russia that this treaty no longer meets the country’s interests and therefore the issue can be raised about Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from it. Advocates of such a move offer various arguments in its favor – from apprehensions that several states near Russia’s borders possess intermediate and shorter-range missiles while Russia does not possess such weapons and “things can no longer continue in this way,” to assertions that such a move would be an adequate response to U.S. plans to deploy missile defense bases in Europe.

Remarkably, none of these arguments corresponds to the letter or the spirit of the INF Treaty. Its Article XV says that either party has the right to withdraw from the treaty “if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.” However, one can hardly seriously argue that ten ground-based interceptor missiles deployed in Poland can jeopardize Russia’s supreme interests.

Moscow should consider the issue of expediency of a unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty in all its bearings. Haste in this matter would be extremely harmful.

An analysis of this matter may reveal that militarily Russia vitally needs non-nuclear intermediate and shorter-range missiles. From the military point of view, there seems to be no need for Russia to possess nuclear missiles with such a range. In this case, Moscow should come forward with an initiative to adapt the INF Treaty to meet the requirement for non-nuclear intermediate and shorter-range missiles. It is important that non-nuclear missiles do not pose a fatal threat to Europe or other neighbors of Russia and particularly to the United States. Therefore one may expect that the U.S. reaction to such a move from Russia will be moderate. This will create conditions for U.S. agreement to the proposed adaptation of the INF Treaty.

Certainly, the above considerations do not cover all aspects of the matter and are open for discussion. The stagnation that has settled in the field of nuclear arms control must be overcome. The control regime must be preserved. For all its imperfections, it is much better for international security than the absence of nuclear arms control. Such control may be lost after 2012 if the leaders of Russia and the United States do not display political will.

Last updated 2 march 2008, 14:35

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