Russia and the United States signed a treaty on strategic arms reductions – the new START Treaty – on April 8, 2010, in Prague. A seminar at the Carnegie Moscow Center examined the new treaty and its implications for disarmament and Russian and U.S. military forces.  

The features of the treaty

Carnegie’s Alexei Arbatov highlighted a number of features from the bilateral negotiation process that were reflected in the treaty: 

  • For the first time in the history of bilateral nuclear arms reduction talks between Russia and the United States, both countries have encountered strong opposition to the new agreement. Although these oppositions took differing institutional forms, they persist in both countries and could complicate the ratification process.
  • For the first time, the United States showed little interest in requiring real reductions to Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. This is because many Russian weapons are currently being decommissioned but few new weapons are replacing them.
  • Russia chose not to obtain reductions to U.S. nuclear forces at the cost of making concessions in the area of transparency – an area of particular interest to the United States.

The result is that the new START Treaty makes only modest real cuts to strategic nuclear forces, without addressing modernization programs.

The military point of view

Carnegie’s Vladimir Dvorkin offered a detailed analysis of the treaty from a military point of view: 

  • Changes to rules for counting nuclear warheads. Under the new START Treaty, warhead numbers are counted according to the number of warheads actually deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), regardless of the number of deployment spaces the platforms offer. Also, any number of missiles deployed on strategic bombers is counted as one warhead.  
  • Changes to coordinated inspections and notifications. The number of inspections has come down from 28, stipulated by the 1991 START-1 Treaty, to 18, and the number of notifications of current tests from 152 (under START-1) to 42. 
  • Decrease in exchange of telemetric information on missile launches. The new treaty obliges the two sides to exchange data on only five launches every year.

In Dvorkin’s view, the tenacity with which the Russian negotiators insisted on reducing the exchange of telemetric data suggests that they did not take into account all of the nuances of the situation. Russia is currently testing two missiles – the Bulava SLBM and the Yars ICBM (a MIRVed Topol-M). They did not want to have to share too much information about these new missiles. However, these tests began when START-1 was still in effect. The Americans had every opportunity to obtain a full picture of these missiles through the telemetric data exchanges stipulated in START-1, which were more intensive than the data exchanges stipulated by the new treaty.

Ultimately, the Russian decision to reduce the exchange of telemetric data may work against them. The Americans are currently working on developing SLBMs with conventional warheads. The reduction in data exchange and in the number of inspections and notifications deprives Russia of the opportunity to monitor this situation. 

Assessment of the new treaty

Arbatov and Dvorkin stressed that the new treaty essentially concludes the work that Vladimir Putin and George Bush failed to complete within the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (Moscow Treaty). In Dvorkin’s view, the new treaty reflects a common particularity in Moscow’s and Washington’s nuclear policies, namely, the absence of any commitment in the foreseeable future to cut their strategic nuclear forces by more than the levels set in the Moscow Treaty. 

But despite the decrease in transparency and the limited reductions, the new START Treaty is nonetheless a major achievement. Above all, it is an important political accomplishment, and a significant result of the reset in Russian-U.S. cooperation. Arbatov noted that the negotiators succeeded in drafting an agreement despite the very tight deadline and the strong opposition in both countries.

Prospects for nuclear disarmament

In Arbatov’s view, the ceilings on strategic arms set in the new treaty could be lowered to 1,200 warheads without detriment to Russian and U.S. national interests. Work is already underway to examine the possibility of further agreements for new cuts to the two countries’ strategic nuclear forces. But, as Dvorkin noted, before looking at further lowering the ceilings, the two sides need to reach an agreement for cooperating on strategic missile defense – one of the biggest issues right now – and also begin talks on tactical nuclear weapons and precision-guided non-nuclear weapons.