Moscow’s Perspective on the Tactical Gamble and Strategic Consequences of the new START Treaty: Part One

Eurasian Daily Monitor

After intense negotiations and the intervention of both President Barack Obama, and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow and Washington announced on March 26 that a new treaty limiting strategic offensive weapons will be signed during April in Prague, replacing the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which lapsed in December 2009. President Medvedev expressed his satisfaction with the pace and outcome of the negotiations: “. . . the draft treaty reflects the balance of interests on both sides and, though the negotiation process was not always easy, the negotiators’ constructive mindset made it possible to achieve a tremendous result in a short time and produce a document ready for signing” (www.kremlin.ru, March 26).

In the presidential statement describing the treaty, the same press release outlined the chief features of the treaty, mentioning the cuts in deployed warheads and on deployed and non-deployed launch vehicles –1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, 800 deployed and non-deployed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launchers, Sea Launched Ballistic missiles (SLBM) launchers, heavy bombers, and a separate limit of 700 deployed ICBM, SLBM, and heavy bombers equipped with nuclear armaments. An additional statement not found in any official US commentary on the treaty states: “The provisions on the interrelation between strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms, as well as on the growing significance of such interrelation in the process of strategic arms reduction, will be set in a legally-binding format.” No such statement was contained in the White House press release on the treaty, which stated: “The treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development, or deployment of current or planned US missile defense programs or current or planned US long-range conventional strike capabilities” (The White House, “Key Facts about the New START Treaty,” March 26). The Russian media speculated on this difference and subjected it to closer examination.

For the last eight years the Russian government has made clear its objections to the decision by the Bush administration to withdraw unilaterally from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, emphasizing the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive systems. In an interview published two days before the official announcement of the agreement, Sergei Rogov (the director of the Institute for US and Canada Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences), pointed to Washington and Moscow disagreeing over this relationship between strategic offensive and defensive systems and stated that he did not expect Washington to accept the inclusion of any such statement in the treaty. He said:

“All previous START documents acknowledged this link, but that was a link to the erstwhile ABM Treaty. I do not think it possible to put any parameters of ABM systems into a treaty dealing with strategic offensive arms. All the same, Obama did acknowledge this link in London last April, so that it might be acknowledged in the preamble after all” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 24).

Rogov suggested that Moscow would be satisfied with a statement about the relationship, without any explicit treaty article defining the technical features of that relationship. He did point to Obama’s decision to forego the Bush administration’s plans for a limited ABM system in Europe and its replacement with a theater missile defense system designed to deal with Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM’s) and not strategic missiles. Rogov did not consider such a system as a threat to strategic stability, and noted the possibility of US-Russian cooperation in this area. As to the overall role of the new treaty in the diplomatic “reset” between Moscow and Washington, Rogov saw few signs of deep progress. Russia has agreed to a new START treaty, because it has to reduce its own strategic nuclear arsenal, and Washington has concurred since the US strategic focus has shifted away from Moscow and toward the Asia-Pacific and China. Rogov expected the US to continue the development of non-nuclear strategic strike systems and to reshape its nuclear arsenal toward more flexible forces.

In the wake of the announced agreement, the Russian press focused on the fact that the treaty reduced the strategic offensive nuclear arsenals of the only two powers possessing such capabilities, seeing it as a re-affirmation of Russia’s international position as a major power. They praised the verification provisions, which, while being less intrusive and costly than those in the original START treaty, guaranteed transparency, effectiveness, and increased confidence in the process. Finally, the treaty was expected to serve as an example to other nuclear powers and support both the letter and spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, serving as a step towards a world without nuclear weapons. The author noted the declaration by Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, that he expected speedy legislative approval of the treaty: “Following its signing, the treaty will be submitted for ratification without delay. As is expected, this will also be done by the American side.” The author, however, did not expect the ratification process to be smooth, pointing to the current conflict between the two parties in the US Senate. He expected Republican opposition will be concerned about handling the issue of a mutual relationship between strategic offensive and defensive systems mentioned in official Russian commentaries and the US position that no binding reference to ABM was included in the Treaty. A political fight on the US side over the content of the preamble is anticipated, which will state such a relationship exists, but provide no binding technical constraints beyond the terms for termination of the treaty by either party (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 29).

Certainly, the statement by the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, on the language in the treaty, reducing mutual concerns and meeting Russian national security interests, seemed to suggest a different interpretation as to its political salience and technical ambiguity: “The treaty clearly defines the mechanism for the control of the entire life cycle of nuclear means, and sets the connection between strategic offensive and defensive armaments” (www.gazeta,ru March 29).