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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

START II and the ABM Treaty

by Anatoly Diakov and Paul Podvig

This paper was written before the NATO military action in Yugoslavia and placed at the START Web site on March 19, 1999. It was also came out in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye NG, (N 25, July 2-8, 1999, p. 1,2) under the title "Searching For An Exit From The Dead-end: Strategic Arms Reductions And The ABM Treaty" (N 25, July 2-8, 1999, p. 1,2). We recommend to pay an attention on the comment of our Center's experts On Irresponsibility (in Russian), in connection with the article "What's Going To Happen To ABM Treaty? Russia Must Not Participate In Breaking The Cornerstone Of Stability" by Vladimir Belous and Viktor Dontsov, (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 24, 1999, p. 8)

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In the coming weeks the Russian parliament, the Duma, would probably get back to the ratification of the START II Treaty, which was so suddenly interrupted in the end of December, literally within two steps from the goal. By now the immediate cause for the postponement of the ratification is all but forgotten, so it seems that nothing would prevent the Duma from ratifying this treaty, which was signed more than six years ago. However, other developments happened early this year could still stumble the ratification process. The most important among these developments is the openly announced intention of the United States to seek modification of the ABM Treaty.

It should be noted that the United States has not made official proposal to change the ABM Treaty yet. Neither it is known what kind of modifications would be considered. But it hardly matters, since the Duma during the START II debate made it very clear that preserving the ABM Treaty in its current form is one of the key conditions of the ratification and the subsequent implementation of START II.

As a result of the U.S. announcement, it is not only the ABM Treaty whose future has been questioned, it is that of START II and, most likely, the follow-on agreement. It is quite likely that we will see another delay with the START II ratification, which could make the chances of this treaty ever entering into force almost nonexistent. Such course of events has been made much more likely by the recent U.S. actions that clearly show that ratification of START II is no more in the list of the U.S. foreign policy priorities.

Russia itself has had uneasy feelings about START II. The government insists that the treaty must be ratified, for Russia could not maintain its strategic forces at the START I level. According to the strategic forces development program, which was approved by the Security Council last summer, under the best circumstances Russia in ten years would have no more than 1500 strategic nuclear warheads. Since this number is less than half of the START II level, the government has been pushing the ratification arguing that it is the only way to move on to the next stage of disarmament talks, which could begin only after START II enters into force.

These arguments eventually made possible the progress in the START II ratification, which resulted in the Duma getting close enough to the it to draft a ratification legislation. Among other things this document contains an outline of what Russia wants to see in the next treaty, START III. First, it is lower overall level, probably lower than 2500 warheads, agreed on in Helsinki. Then, the new treaty must contain measures to reduce the so called “upload potential,” allow Russia greater flexibility in deciding upon structure of its strategic forces, and to take into account all nuclear strategic-capable delivery systems, notably sea-launched cruise missiles. In short, Russia would like to correct most of the START II drawbacks (as they perceived by the Russian side). But in reality this amounts to a Russia’s desire to revise the key elements of the START II Treaty.

The possibility of such a revision, and therefore of having a START III Treaty that would satisfy Russia, has always been in doubt. In the situation when Russia made a decision to cut its strategic forces to the level of 1500 warheads regardless of the outcome of the START III negotiations, it is hard to see why the United States would be making any concessions during the future talks, let alone the ones that would lead to revision of the START II key provisions. However, Russia didn’t have a realistic alternative to this course of actions and until recently there was a chance that the START III negotiations, once started would soon bring an acceptable outcome. The United States announcement that it would seek modification of the ABM Treaty has changed all that, dealing a severe blow to the Russian policy, based on the assumption that the START II ratification will be followed by reasonably quick START II talks with an outcome that would be more favorable for Russia than the conditions of START II.

Even if the START II Treaty is approved by the Duma this spring (which is a very big “if” itself), irreconcilable differences over the ABM Treaty issue would make a progress on START III all but impossible. As a result, Russia would find itself in the situation, in which it has to maintain its strategic forces within the rigid START II framework, while the United States would have an opportunity to keep a significant number of warheads in reserve ready to complement its already much larger force. In addition to that, the pressure to change the ABM Treaty will continue and the United States apparently would not stop from threatening to break out from this treaty if Russia is unwilling to accept the changes. Of course, Russia might threaten to break out from START II or even from START I in response, but it is hard to see how this threat may or will be taken seriously.

If Russia does not ratify START II, mentioning the U.S. intention to deploy the National Missile Defense, it could hardly change the situation to the better. Such a move would only make it easier for the United States to break out from the ABM Treaty if it chooses so. Besides, in this case the responsibility for the inevitable collapse of the nuclear disarmament process would be put squarely on Russia’s shoulders, and it is not clear if Russia would be able to bear the painful consequences of that.

Of course, preserving the ABM Treaty is in Russia’s interest, especially today, when the Russian economy is in very bad shape and it has no other means to prevent the ABM deployment. At the same time, it is very difficult to see quite what Russia could do to preserve this treaty if the United States decided to break out from it. Taking a strong stance would hardly help (the last time Russia tried this was the question of NATO expansion, and this turned out to be one of the most humiliating defeats of the Russian foreign policy). Besides, an analysis of the U.S. missile defense programs shows that the United States could deploy most of the key components of the National Missile Defense without violating the letter of the ABM Treaty. Namely, these are space-based sensors that could provide cueing and tracking data, as well as modified early warning radars.

As we can see, regardless of whether the START II Treaty is ratified or not, Russia will be entering into a long period of uncertainty over the future of the next steps of the strategic arms reductions and over the future of the missile defense deployment and the ABM Treaty. Such an uncertainty could hardly be more damaging for the Russian forces and would preclude any reasonable approach to dealing with the urgent problems that Russian strategic forces face, namely improving safety and decommissioning the older systems. The real danger of this situation for Russia is not that the United States would eventually break out from the ABM Treaty and deploy a strategic missile defense, but that Russia by that time would be unable to do anything to prevent this from happening.

In our view, in order to avoid a collapse of the nuclear disarmament process and to preserve at least some of the limits of the ABM Treaty, Russia should agree to consider some modifications of the ABM Treaty. At the same time, agreeing to the changes, Russia should underline that while a modified treaty could allow a limited defense, the relationship between missile defenses and strategic stability still holds true and therefore the spirit of the ABM Treaty should be preserved. Accordingly, the changes could include only increasing the number of permitted ABM deployment sites to two from the current one and the corresponding increase in the number of interceptors. And some of the treaty limits must be made stronger: Russia should insist on a ban of space-based interceptors “based on other physical principles.”

If Russia gives its approval to the ABM Treaty changes, it would certainly expect that the United States will make some concessions on the question of the strategic arms reductions. In practical terms it means that Russia would expect the United States to agree on immediate beginning of negotiations of a new arms reduction treaty that would aim to reduce the number of strategic weapons to 1500 warheads on each side. In addition to the lower levels, this treaty must include provisions that would reduce the “upload potential,” eliminate nuclear sea-launch cruise missiles, and provide Russia with more flexibility in its force planning. As we already mentioned, including these (and some other) measures into the new treaty would in effect revert most of the key provisions of START II. This means that Russia and the United States must agree that the START II Treaty has no future and cancel the process of its ratification.

Among the measures that would guarantee irreversibility of the reductions and prevent the parties from retaining a significant number of warheads in operational reserve, the new treaty must require dismantlement of warheads removed from the delivery systems that are either eliminated or “downloaded” (this is another reason to cancel START II, for to be effective the “downloading” must begin from the START I levels). An analysis shows that such a measure would allow about ten-fold reduction of the number of warheads in reserve. Implementation of this would require negotiating procedures for such dismantlement, as well as mechanism that would ensure that fissile materials from the dismantled warheads are put under bilateral control. All these questions must be considered during separate negotiations that must also start immediately.

An agreement to begin this series of negotiations would be possible only if it is reached quickly, within next few months. Otherwise, the parliamentary elections in Russia and presidential elections in both countries would postpone this agreement making it virtually impossible. In addition to the timing, it is very important for the agreement on negotiations to include the main parameters of the future agreements, whether it is the ABM or the new strategic weapon reductions treaty. This would bring the much needed certainty in the current situation and allow Russia and the United States to make their plans accordingly.

In our view, Russia and the United States could agree on the following set of measures:

Without any doubt, these measures would require each side to make some major concessions. At the same time, we are convinced that these measures could allow Russia and the United States to remove the stumbling blocks on the way toward further reductions of nuclear weapons and would make it possible to continue the U.S.-Russian dialog on a basis of parity and mutual respect.

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© Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 1999