The signing of a new U.S.-Russian Treaty on strategic nuclear arms (New START) in April 2010, in Prague, is a major step forward in building a legally binding, verifiable strategic arms reduction framework after the almost 20-year pause in progress that followed the signing of the START-1 Treaty in 1991. The new Treaty is critically important from a political and military-strategic point of view, ending the protracted standstill in strategic dialogue between the two nuclear superpowers while evincing their improved political relations and ability to reach compromises on complicated issues.  
Carnegie Moscow Center experts Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin examine the strategic aspects of the new Treaty, the political factors that influenced the bilateral negotiations, and the prospects for further nuclear arms reductions. 

  • Strategic aspects. The new treaty sets ceilings on nuclear warheads on deployed delivery vehicles: intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers (1550), on the number of deployed delivery vehicles (700), and on the aggregate number for deployed and non-deployed missile launchers and bombers (800). The broad experience the two parties gained in the monitoring and reciprocal verification of each other’s strategic nuclear forces within the START-1 framework made it possible in the new Treaty to streamline counting rules, substantially cut back inspections, prescribe less stringent cooperative measures, and simplify rules on the exchange of telemetric information on flight tests of land- and sea-based strategic missiles.
  • Political factors. Unlike during the Cold War, the strategic nuclear balance and arms control negotiations is just one of several major international security issues, one which helps find ways to resolve other important international challenges. Cooperation between the big powers on issues such as Iran and North Korea plays a major role in this respect. Breaking from the pattern of earlier nuclear arms control negotiations, the United States did not pursue the goal of eliminating, reducing or limiting particular Russian arms or weapons programs, but focused primarily on preserving maximum transparency.
  • Prospects for future reductions. Moving ahead towards further strategic nuclear arms cuts will depend on progress in important related areas. In particular, the issue of getting the United States, NATO, and Russia to join forces in developing missile defense needs to be resolved. The prospects for signing future treaties on strategic nuclear weapons will also depend on the ability of the parties to reach agreements on problems such as up-load (reconstitution) potential and non-nuclear precision-guided strategic weapons. Another new area will also have an important part to play: reciprocal steps to reduce the threat of a launch-on-warning attack, through verifiable organizational and technical reduction of the alert rate (launch readiness) of strategic nuclear forces.

Arbatov and Dvorkin note that, “over the coming years it looks likely that the search for an agreement on missile defense and other related issues will be more important than further cuts of offensive strategic nuclear forces.” More intensive cooperation is hampered by persistent mutual mistrust and bureaucratic obstacles. The best way to overcome these barriers would be to restore the elements of cooperation lost over previous years. “Urgent steps should be taken to reanimate the project of a Joint Data Exchange Center on missile and space launches, which the two parties agreed to set up 12 years ago now. It is also important to resume the interrupted series of joint computer exercises involving Russia, the U.S., and NATO on theater missile defense, subsequently expanding these exercises to test grounds and taking them beyond just theater defense.”
In parallel to this, the two parties should hold talks on tactical nuclear weapons and on the closely related problem of conventional armed forces limitations in Europe.

The two authors argue that “these steps will not only help to avoid a new missile defence crisis very likely by the end of the decade, and another deadlock in strategic arms control, but at the same time will also help to transform the relations of mutual nuclear deterrence into a more constructive form of strategic interaction.”