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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Needless Obligations

Why Does Russia Want A Treaty With No Substance?

by Anatoli Diakov, Timur Kadyshev, Eugene Miasnikov and Pavel Podvig

This paper was published in Izvestia daily on March 18, 2002

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The less time remains before the US president's visit to Moscow, the stranger is the situation at the consultations over an agreement on radical reductions of strategic arms. On the one hand, there is no shortage of optimistic statements on the prospects of signing a "legally binding" agreement; on the other hand, neither Russian, nor American side can give an intelligible explanation of how the agreement will solve concrete strategic arms reduction problems. A perfectly natural question comes to one's mind: what is the purpose of the future agreement and does Russia actually need today a "legally binding" document that would codify the intentions of both sides?

Russia and the United States regard the future agreement differently. Russia does not try to conceal its interest in having the agreement. One of the major reasons for this is the intention to use this agreement to confirm a status of an equal partner to the United States, and - if possible - to save an appearance of keeping parity in strategic arms. Of no lesser importance is the hope to assert the concept of interrelation between strategic defensive and offensive arms. These are probably the reasons behind Moscow's persistent demand to give the future agreement a "legally binding" character. In Russian perception, no other kind of document would be able to cope with these problems.

Washington's interest to this agreement is very limited at best. The United States makes no secret that it is not willing to impose any limitations on its strategic arms modernization and missile defenses development programs. Neither the United States is interested in control over reduction of Russian nuclear arsenal under any new treaty, the main reason being that Russian reductions will be carried out regardless of whether a new document is signed or not. The U.S. administration apparently believes that START I treaty (which will remain in force over the next eight years), together with the CTR program, will provide sufficient means to verify elimination of Russian weapons.

Now - regarding possible contents of the document in question. Although both sides declared intentions to reduce their strategic offensive arms down to 1700-2200 warheads, the answer to the main question - what the "reductions" will actually mean - remains unclear. Nuclear Posture Review prepared by Pentagon in the end of the last year puts forward a new warheads counting rule - it suggests that only "operationally deployed nuclear warheads" should be taken into account. Under current conditions, should Russia insist on making a legally binding agreement, it would also have to accept American approach toward warhead counting. In this case, instead of an agreement that would impose limitations on deployment of strategic weapons, Russia would get a document that legitimizes the concept of "operationally deployed nuclear weapons", and therefore opens a way to circumvent these limitations. On the same grounds, of fundamental importance is the widely discussed issue of irreversibility of reductions. It is known that the United States will fulfill virtually all reductions by downloading their delivery vehicles and shifting them to non-nuclear roles. Most of the downloaded warheads will be kept in storage facilities, and the US will be able to re-deploy them should the need arise. Russia - not without a good reason - considers these reductions "virtual" and insists that re-deployment possibilities are eliminated.

The complication here is that in the current situation it is impossible to ensure irreversibility of reductions in a way that would be acceptable for Russia. The most reliable way to do so would be elimination of delivery vehicles. However, in this case in order to reach the level of 2200 warheads, the United States would have to eliminate all 550 ICBMs, almost all bombers, and 7 out of 18 nuclear submarines - which is clearly unreal. Another option would be elimination of nuclear warheads removed from delivery vehicles. However, the problem here is that neither the United States nor Russia is prepared to take this route. Verifiable elimination of nuclear warheads requires much higher level of confidence than the countries have today.

Currently, there is no satisfactory way to ensure irreversibility of the reductions. Any legally binding agreement signed today would have to confirm the status quo, an integral part of which is reversibility of the reductions rather than irreversibility.

Thus, the need for a "legally binding" agreement does not appear to be all that obvious. Since under present circumstances Russia will not be able to secure this kind of agreement on acceptable conditions, it seems to be preferable that during the forthcoming meeting, Russia and United States would limit themselves to political statements confirming already declared measures to reduce nuclear arsenals. The history of US-Russian dialogue showed on more than one occasion, that signing a bad treaty is worse than signing no treaty at all.

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