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New START, One Year Later

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New START, One Year Later

An Interview with Christopher A. Ford

By Allen Wagner
February 27, 2012

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed by the United States and Russia, marks the one-year anniversary of its entry into force this month. NBR asked Christopher Ford, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Center and a former U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, to look back at the negotiation of New START, describe the treaty’s current status, and assess the opportunities for future arms-reduction agreements between the two countries.

Can you briefly explain New START and its goals?

“New START” is the latest in a line of strategic arms control agreements between Washington and Moscow. It is in many respects a successor agreement to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) of 1991, since the formal successor to that agreement (START II) was never ratified by the Russian Duma. New START is also the fourth agreement to provide for arms reductions, as opposed simply to imposing arms limits, though only the second to address warhead totals. (The INF Treaty of 1987 and START I reduced nuclear delivery systems, while the Moscow Treaty of 2002 codified reductions to operational warhead deployments.)

The United States, which negotiated the final New START terms under the administration of President Obama—though initial discussions on what became the treaty actually began under the Bush administration in September 2006—seems to have envisioned the treaty as an important “first step” toward fulfilling Obama’s promises to move more quickly and resolutely toward the eventual goal of global nuclear weapons abolition, as well as a core component of a “reset” of relations with Russia.

It is not at all clear, however, that the Kremlin shared the U.S. view of New START’s relationship to disarmament, though Moscow appears to have been keen to reach a deal for its own reasons. (Russia seems to view legally binding arms control treaties with the United States as being reassuring, perhaps because Kremlin officials still entertain dark and semi-paranoid suspicions of U.S. motives, but also because such treaties form for Russians the symbolic coinage of their country’s continued status as a superpower and peer to the post–Cold War American colossus. Arms control negotiating also serves Russia’s interest in providing leverage over U.S. presidents over the issue of ballistic missile defense.)

New START imposes overall limits on the two sides’ nuclear delivery systems and operationally deployed warheads. These limits represent a modest reduction from levels previously permissible, though they do not affect the two sides equally. (Russian forces did not actually have to be cut to reach New START levels, and indeed, Moscow seems to be building up to them. U.S. forces will have to be somewhat reduced.) The treaty does not affect overall weapon stocks, for warheads may be kept in non-deployed status at the parties’ discretion.

How do Russia and the United States each view the treaty one year after entry into force?

It is not clear that the treaty has made much difference in Russo-American relations, much less effected some kind of overall “reset” of an otherwise imperiled relationship. Russian attitudes toward the United States—including Moscow’s fulminations against U.S. missile defense and the allegedly malevolent possibilities of a NATO invasion, and the Kremlin’s periodic promises to increase its “nuclear capacity” in reaction to such threats—seem to be driven as much by internal Russian dynamics as the country’s interaction with some exogenous American reality. In any event, Russian officials today sound more or less as unhappy with Obama administration policy as they did with Bush administration policy.

My impression is that the Kremlin views the treaty less happily than had been expected, concluding that its preambular references to missile defense—apparently intended to increase political pressure on American leaders against defenses, and for this reason sharply controversial in the Senate ratification debate—have been insufficient to derail U.S. progress, and that even the Obama administration’s scaled-back defensive planning remains in some respect a grave potential threat. In the United States, conservatives may be relieved that the sky has not fallen with New START’s ratification, for it has not, but they also take little consolation in this: the Obama administration claimed all along that the treaty was but a “first step” toward much more significant cuts, and the White House is supposedly now investigating just how low it might be prepared to go next.

Many U.S. observers were also struck by how acrimonious and difficult the Senate ratification fight turned out to be, notwithstanding the pronounced modesty of the new treaty’s actual reductions. This difficulty seems also to have spooked international observers in the disarmament community, who were disappointed by New START’s minimalism and yet appalled by how hard it still was to win agreement. I know of few observers anywhere who are very optimistic about the likelihood of reaching and ratifying a follow-on deal of any great significance, though Obama officials claim to be hard at work on one.

Some members of the U.S. Congress raised objections to ratifying New START when it was debated two years ago. Looking at the treaty now, have any of their concerns been validated?

The main problems envisioned by U.S. conservatives had to do not with New START’s actual force levels but with its deliberate entanglement with ancillary issues—most prominently, language in its preamble that seemed intended to imply that the pursuit of missile defenses is incompatible with arms control and disarmament progress. There was also unhappiness that Russia would not be required to reduce its forces under the treaty, as well as skepticism about “New START’s” contribution to the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “reset.”

Today, there appears to be some substantiation for these various concerns. It is really too early to tell what impact New START will have on missile-defense politics, but the Russians have already begun threatening to withdraw from the treaty if Washington does not change course even on Obama’s missile defense planning, and the Kremlin seems poised to drive a very hard bargain when Obama officials return to the negotiating table—perhaps even to the point of forcing Obama to choose between his modest missile defenses and his entire arms control agenda. More concretely, however, Russia is reportedly already at work building up to New START levels, and it has announced plans to build a new heavy ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capable of carrying a large load-out of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Since most nuclear analysts—and the Obama administration—believe that MIRVs are more destabilizing than single-warhead missiles, this suggests the possibility that the nuclear balance could end up in some sense more “unstable” after New START than before it. (Russia also apparently continues its announced program of developing new types of nuclear weapons, while U.S. modernization efforts—including even the infrastructure improvements promised by President Obama in connection with New START ratification—largely languish.) Nor does the Russian “reset” seem to have accomplished much, with officials in Moscow—in this election year for Russia’s infamously “managed” democracy—sounding little, if any, less hostile and paranoid than before, while Russia’s Security Council veto shelters Iran from further international nonproliferation sanctions and helps the Assad regime abuse Syria’s miserable population.

It would be an overstatement to argue that “New START” has done much harm, but the treaty seems to have accomplished very little except to allow the Obama administration to proclaim that the United States is “back” in the arms control business and that the president’s promise of nuclear weapons abolition is not a naïve fantasy.

The United States and Russia appeared to be headed in a positive direction for further talks on reducing nuclear arms until November and December of last year when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev reacted strongly to the planned U.S.-NATO missile defense system. How do such bumps affect the two countries’ ability to negotiate further reductions in tactical and strategic nuclear arms?

There were probably always sharp limits on what could be done with “the next treaty.” New START effectively picked the low-hanging fruit, imposing cuts that weren’t actually reductions for Russia at all, and which involved only very modest reductions of U.S. forces. (The new deployed warhead limit of 1,550, for instance, is actually slightly higher than the level that Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested was probably his redline back when he worked for President George W. Bush.) Since Russia does not appear to share President Obama’s ostensible enthusiasm for “nuclear zero,” and in fact regards nuclear weaponry as an essential way to make up for conventional weakness as well as a critical barometer of the Kremlin’s continuing great-power status, we are unlikely to see dramatic additional cuts. Given Russia’s apparently growing insistence upon bringing in issues of missile defense limitation that are unlikely to be ratified by the U.S. Senate—as well as the Americans’ claimed intention to achieve a significant reduction in Russia’s huge stock of non-strategic weaponry, which Moscow shows no sign of being willing to make—I am pessimistic about the odds of a follow-on agreement of any great significance. (For both parties, moreover, uncertainty about China’s ongoing future buildup and trajectory will also probably emerge as a brake upon what reductions are conceivable.)

My own guess is that for the immediate future, the more promising avenue for strategic arms control lies in pushing the envelope on what can be done with both Russia and China in terms of strategic transparency and confidence-building measures (T/CBM). Numerical limits and/or reductions—or at least significant ones—are likely to remain “too hard” for some time.

Looking back at the history of arms control treaties between Washington and Moscow, what has been the trajectory of negotiations and does it bode well for future treaties?

To my eye, the fundamental boundary upon the possibility for arms control between the two powers has been more “political” than a function of nuclear negotiating and force posture details per se. Before the period of political reform in the USSR that ultimately brought down the communist regime, the bilateral arms control agenda was confined to arms limitation; actual reductions had to await sweeping changes in the basic relationship between the two countries (i.e., the end of the Cold War). It was not just in the post-communist period that deep cuts became possible, but actually because it was then becoming a post-communist period. Arms control thus responded to the opportunities created by political change more than it led such change.

Today, I think there are stark limits on what it is possible to imagine in arms reductions between Moscow and Washington without further political developments of great significance in either or both capitals. The relationship today is not fundamentally antagonistic in the way it was in the dark days of geopolitical and ideological rivalry, but Russia remains far from a liberal democracy, and its corrupt and nationalistic political elite is obsessed by security threats real and imagined, alarmed at the idea of permitting more genuine pluralism and political accountability, and still all too entranced by the ghosts of its communist imperial past. Without significant reforms occurring to replace the siloviki system of the Putin era with something more truly liberal and democratic, I see little prospect that the Kremlin will ever share the Americans’ interest in genuinely deep cuts. There may be a little “fat” that can still be cut out of the two powers’ arsenals under present circumstances, but I would be surprised if this can go very far without short-circuiting.

Should the United States and Russia pursue further negotiations on arms reduction? What would the goals be on both sides? How far are the two countries willing or likely to go to cut their nuclear arsenals?

I see no reason not to pursue further talks, but I am pessimistic about their likelihood of success, especially if they take the traditional form of adversarially negotiated and reciprocal reductions and if significant (as opposed to cosmetic) cuts are made the objective.

A more interesting, and in the long-run propitious, approach would probably be to shift our emphasis to T/CBMs and to try to involve the Chinese as well. Some U.S. efforts at engaging Beijing are reportedly already underway, though Beijing remains largely unresponsive. I suspect that such overtures are unlikely to succeed as long as Washington continues to give the impression that its highest priority is a “New New START” deal with Moscow. There is no guarantee that Beijing will respond under the best of conditions, of course, but we would probably do better to make trilateral T/CBMs the principal focus of our strategic negotiating efforts.

Allen Wagner is an intern at NBR. A recent graduate of the University of Washington, Allen holds a BA in Asian Studies and Political Science.

Christopher A. Ford is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation.

For an examination of Russian perceptions and policies regarding the rise of two Asian giants—one near neighbor, China, and one long-time ally, India— see the chapter Challenges and Opportunities: Russia and the Rise of China and India by Dmitri Trenin in Strategic Asia 2011–12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers—China and India.