Report Plays Down Potential Russian “New START” Noncompliance

Russia would achieve little benefit by violating the terms of its commitments under a new nuclear arms control pact with the United States, the U.S. State Department said in a confidential report to lawmakers earlier this month (seeGSN, July 19).

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April signed the replacement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The “New START” pact would obligate both nations to cap their fielded strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 warheads, down from the maximum of 2,200 allowed each country by 2012 under the 2002 Moscow Treaty. The deal would also limit U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear delivery vehicles to 700, with another 100 platforms allowed in reserve. The pact has been submitted for ratification by the Senate and by Russia’s legislature.

“The potential benefits to be derived from Russia from cheating or breakout from the treaty would appear to be questionable,” theWashington Times yesterday quoted the July 12 report as stating. The document’s release appeared to precede the disclosure of State Department assessments on Russia’s compliance in recent years with the 1991 treaty, which expired last December (see GSN, July 6).

The reports indicate that Russia was “in noncompliance on a whole range of START treaty issues,” former Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter said last year.

Due to the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, “any Russian cheating under the treaty would have little effect if any on the assured second-strike capabilities of U.S. strategic forces,” says an unclassified portion of the July 12 document.

“In addition to the financial and international political costs of such an action, any Russian leader considering cheating or breakout from [New START] would have to consider that the United States will retain the ability to ‘upload’ large numbers of additional nuclear warheads on both bombers and missiles under New START, which would provide the ability for a timely and very significant U.S. response,” the document states (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, July 20).

The Pentagon took a similar position in testimony yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Associated Press reported.

“Because the United States will retain a diverse triad of strategic forces, any Russian cheating under the treaty would have little effect on the assured second-strike capabilities of U.S. strategic forces,” Principal Deputy Defense Undersecretary James Miller said, arguing that Moscow would be unlikely to violate the pact (Robert Burns, Associated Press/Florida Times-Union, July 20).

“The survivability and responsiveness of (U.S.) strategic submarines at sea and alert heavy bombers would be unaffected by even large-scale cheating,” the Times quoted Miller as saying. “This, of course, does not mean that Russian cheating or breakout is likely or that it would be acceptable” (Gertz, Washington Times).

However, the resilience of the U.S. nuclear deterrent offers Russia little reason to breach the pact, AP quoted him as saying.

The Pentagon official reaffirmed the State Department’s position that the United States could rapidly deploy additional warheads if the need arose. Russia lacks a similar capability, he said.

“Therefore any breakout scenario would have, at most, limited military significance,” Miller said (Burns, AP).

The pact would give the United States an “improved understanding” of Russia’s nuclear weapons, the State Department said in its report. The document suggests U.S. intelligence efforts could help verify Moscow’s declared weapon inventories, but a National Intelligence Estimate questions how well the U.S. intelligence community could monitor Russian compliance with the pact.

“What this brings to the casual observer’s mind … is if it doesn’t have any consequences if they do any cheating, what’s the point in having a treaty?” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an exchange yesterday with U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. Kevin Chilton, who expressed agreement with the State Department report.

“I always believed in all the treaties that I’ve been involved in, in the past 28 years … that cheating does matter and it does have an effect. And to say that it has little if any effect, then we’ve been wasting a lot of time and money on negotiations,” McCain said during the hearing.

Chilton agreed that Russian noncompliance would affect the agreement, but added that “we’re in a good position with the treaty” and the United States could spot “significant cheating” (Gertz, Washington Times). The United States would notice a major increase in Russian warheads and react as needed, he said (Burns, AP).

Senator Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) called for a ratification process slow enough to allow thorough consideration of the treaty’s monitoring terms and U.S. spy agency perspectives on the pact. “The administration is taking us down a dangerous path,” Bond said in released remarks.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has accused Moscow of breaching the 1991 treaty by testing a multiple-warhead version of its Topol-M ICBM. “The Russians have cheated — if not in the letter of the START agreement, at least in its spirit — by converting one of their existing missiles, the Topol-M, to this new multiple-warhead variant,” Kyl said.

Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, said the pact would be “verifiable.”

McCain countered: “Many of us have concerns about the New START treaty’s methods of verification, its constraints on ballistic-missile defense and the accompanying plan for modernization of both the nuclear stockpile and our nuclear-delivery vehicles” (Gertz, Washington Times).

Senators George LeMieux (R-Fla.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) suggested nonstrategic nuclear weapons posed a more significant danger, United Press International reported (see related GSN story, today; United Press International, July 20).