04/03/2009 - 08:33

Reaction to the Obama-Medvedev joint statement on arms control

Pavel Podvig

Pavel Podvig

A physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Podvig works on the Russian nuclear arsenal, US-Russian relations, and nonproliferation. In 1995, he headed the Russian...

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For Russia, dialogue with the United States has always been as much about style as substance. So it isn't surprising that the change of tone brought by the Obama administration has produced encouraging results for nuclear arms control. The joint statement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is hardly groundbreaking, but it does contain a few remarkable points.

First, as many observers already have noted, Russia and the United States committed themselves to a nuclear-weapon-free world--probably for the first time ever. It's true that many in Russia (as well as in the United States) are skeptical about that goal, but it's important that it was spelled out in an official bilateral statement.

In my view, a strong mechanism of transparency and verification is much more important than any specific number of warheads that a treaty eventually would mandate."

Second, Obama and Medvedev agreed to restart negotiations on a new treaty that would limit and reduce the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads. I still believe that a new treaty isn't necessary--keeping the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in force and updating the Moscow Treaty with new transparency measures would be the best way to proceed. (See my December column, "Formulating the Next U.S.-Russian Arms Control Agreement.") But Obama and Medvedev explicitly called for a new agreement. Let's hope it works, because the road to a new treaty won't be easy.

To begin with, the timeline is tight. As everyone knows, the treaty would have to be ready by December, when START expires. Diplomats I've talked to are publicly optimistic about reaching this goal, but privately admit that the schedule isn't realistic. I also wouldn't underestimate the problems that the new agreement will face domestically. While Obama and Medvedev can probably convince the Senate and Duma to ratify the new treaty without much delay, they may find that they will have to spend substantial amounts of political capital to do so.

More importantly, working under intense time pressure and trying to demonstrate a sizable reduction of the number of deployed warheads might produce an agreement that could delay--not advance--progress toward the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Although Obama and Medvedev made a commitment to include "effective verification measures" in the treaty, these measures might fall far short of the transparency that was included in START. START data exchanges produce a detailed list of launchers, their locations and movements, and plenty of information on the technical characteristics of missiles.

The first indication of this is Russia's apparent readiness to accept the concept of "operationally deployed nuclear warheads" in the way it was used by the United States in the Moscow Treaty. If Washington has its way, the new treaty reporting might be limited to the aggregate number of warheads and delivery systems, without specifying where these warheads and launchers are deployed. (Moscow Treaty reports merely provide an aggregate number of warheads that are considered to be operationally deployed and hide all of the details in classified supplements.) Given that the Russian military isn't keen on openness, such an outcome is likely.

In my view, a strong mechanism of transparency and verification is much more important than any specific number of warheads that the treaty eventually will mandate. In fact, at this point of the disarmament process, it would be better if the United States and Russia admit that they have 5,500 and 3,900 strategic nuclear warheads respectively--as the most recent START data exchange indicates--and work to reduce these numbers in a transparent and verifiable manner, rather than claiming that they have only 1,500, but hiding the whereabouts and technical qualities of those warheads behind a wall of secrecy.

The good news is that the joint presidential statement does call for "effective verification measures drawn from the experience of the parties in implementing the START Treaty." Now we need to make sure that they keep their word.