Status of U.S.-Russian Negotiations on Strategic Arms Reduction

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Updated August 9, 2002

Further cuts of strategic offensive arms continue to be one of the most important aspects of on-going U.S.-Russian talks on strategic stability. However, the process of negotiations on strategic arms reductions remains at a deadlock for the last several years.

Russia and the United States completed implementation of START I Treaty by the end of 2001. This treaty limits strategic arsenals to 6000 warheads, counted in accordance with deployed delivery platforms. START II Treaty, which restricts strategic arsenals to 3000-3500 warheads, has never came into effect.
You propose to reduce nuclear aresenals threefold? -- Sure!
"You propose to reduce nuclear arsenals threefold? -- Sure!"

In 1997-2000 Kremlin and Clinton administration conducted consultations over the substance of the START III treaty. The treaty was meant to reduce U.S. and Russian arsenals to 2000-2500 warheads, however no results were achieved. The main point of disagreement between the sides was the problem of "breakout potential". Russian side insisted on elimination of delivery systems excluded from counting. The U.S. were interested in retaining their strategic delivery systems and preferred to conduct reductions by means of downloading of platforms and assigning them to non-nuclear missions.

Decision of Clinton administration to deploy the national missile defense that was prohibited by the ABM Treaty, substantially complicated the course of consultations. Clinton administration suggested that Russia agrees to modify the ABM Treaty in exchange of completing START III agreement, but Russian side rejected this proposal. For a long period of time Russia insisted that further nuclear cuts were only possible under condition that the ABM Treaty would be retained and enforced. Russian officials stated on more than occasion that in response to U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty Russia would not only denounce START II Treaty, but also withdraw from START I and INF Treaties.

In his statement of November 14, 2000 President Putin proposed to reduce US and Russian strategic arsenals to 1,500 warheads. This was a notable event, however at that time Russian attitude toward the ABM Treaty did not change.

The Bush administration radically changed U.S. approach toward arms control policy. The decision has been made to cut strategic forces, but these reductions are going to be conducted out of framework of a binding agreement. In addition, the Bush administration set a course toward deployment of a full scale ballistic missile defense, not limited by any international agreement.

In these circumstances the sides did not hold any official consultations over strategic arms reductions for a long period of time. The situation changed in summer of 2001. In July President Bush and President Putin signed Joint Statement on Upcoming Talks on Strategic Issues in Genoa. According to this statement the sides agreed to "...begin intensive consultations on the interrelated subjects of offensive and defensive systems...".

Many observers hoped that the sides would manage to resolve disagreements by the November 2001 US-Russian summit in Crawford, TX. Such optimistic hopes were generated mostly in view of the new intensively developed relationship between the two countries in the war against terrorism after the events of September 11, 2001. However, the summit revealed still existing difference of approaches toward strategic arms reductions and ABM deployment. President George W. Bush announced U.S. plans to reduce nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 "operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads", proposing in fact new rules of counting which would allow the U.S. to retain their strategic delivery systems. President Vladimir Putin in response said, that Russia would proceed accordingly and offered to codify announced cuts in a binding agreement. Despite the division of approaches toward strategic arms reductions, the sides agreed that they would continue discussions of the problem, and that the U.S. and Russian Presidents could sign a binding document during President Bush's visit to Moscow next summer.

It is notable, that Russian position on the ABM Treaty has also changed by November 2001. Though Moscow still insisted on importance of preservation of the ABM Treaty, the option of "hard" response to the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty was dropped. As a result President Bush's announcement of the U.S. formal notice on unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile treaty received a reserved response from Moscow. The Russian President condemned the U.S. action, but excluded any aggressive move in response.

Nuclear Posture Review submitted to the Congress in the end of December 2001 clearly answers to the question whether or not the U.S. need a new agreement with Russia on strategic arms reductions. Douglas J. Feith Undersecretary of Defense for Policy stated at the Senate Armed Services Hearing on the Nuclear Posture Review on February 14, 2002 "...These reductions, and other adjustments in our offensive and defensive capabilities, will be achieved outside the Cold Wars adversarial and endless negotiating process that was centered on the balance of nuclear terror. Today, that competitive and legalistic process would be counterproductive. It would impede or derail the significant reductions both sides now want; it would lock both sides into fixed nuclear arsenals that could be excessive or inadequate in the future; and, by perpetuating the Cold War strategic relationship, it would inhibit movement to a far better strategic framework for relations..."

Bilateral negotiations of U.S. and Russian experts lasted for six month and finally the Text of U.S.-Russia Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty was signed by Presidents at the Moscow summit on May 24, 2002.

Analysis of the document shows, that though the sides agreed to reduce the levels of their strategic nuclear warheads to 1,700-2,200, they have not reached a compromise in the definition of "strategic nuclear warheads" and, consequently, in warhead counting rules. It should be underscored, that START I Treaty uses different definition - "strategic warheads". Appearance of an additional word "nuclear" in the new definition means that the Russian side in fact has agreed with the U.S. interpretation, which allows to deploy conventional warheads on strategic delivery platforms and at the same time exclude that platforms from counting. Thus, one may draw a conclusion, that the Russian position on ensuring irreversibility, which consisted in elimination of delivery means excluded from counting, has failed, as our experts predicted. The signed document in fact represents a framework agreement rather than a treaty, and the sides will have to work out the essence of the new document within the frames of "Bilateral Implementation Commission". Namely, they will have to work out the new definition of "strategic nuclear warhead" and transparency measures to verify the treaty implementation. However, this process may last until the end of the term of the new treaty, namely December 31, 2012, since there are no additional limitations or specific phases of the new treaty implementation and each of the sides will itself determine the composition and structure of its strategic offensive arms.

The preparatory process for ratification of the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, signed on May 24, 2002, by the Presidents of Russia and the USA, has been launched both in Russia and the U.S. Last week, the text of the Treaty and article-by-article commentaries thereto were sent to the related committees of the State Duma and Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, and U.S. President George W. Bush submitted the Treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent prior to ratification. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened hearings on the Moscow Treaty on July 9.

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This page is maintained by Eugene Miasnikov.
Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, MIPT, 2002.