Assessing START follow-on

By Pavel Podvig | March 29, 2010

After missing more than a few deadlines and achieving several so-called significant breakthroughs, the United States and Russia finally have reached an agreement on a new arms control treaty. It will be signed in Prague on April 8, almost a year to the day U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to begin treaty negotiations and Obama announced, also in Prague, his commitment to a nuclear-weapon-free world.

So, was the treaty worth the wait? As a disarmament measure, it will be a very modest step. The treaty will set a ceiling of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads–technically a reduction of more than 30 percent from the current levels–but almost all of the reductions will be accomplished by changing the way the warheads are counted. That means most of the warheads will still be in the U.S. and Russian active arsenals. (I have posted some current numbers and projections on my “Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces” website.)

It’s a bit early to say if the new arms control treaty will be able to deliver on the counts of transparency and verification, but it appears that it will: The final agreement should provide substantial openness of nuclear arsenals.”

Numbers alone, however, don’t tell the whole story. In fact, they aren’t all that important. Whether it is 1,550 warheads or 500 warheads, it’s far too many. What is important is that the treaty provides the public with a way to hold the U.S. and Russian governments accountable for the nuclear weapons they possess. As I wrote a year ago, “A strong mechanism of transparency and verification is much more important than any specific number of warheads that the treaty eventually will mandate.” It’s a bit early to say if the new treaty will be able to deliver on this count, but it appears that it will: The final agreement should provide substantial openness of nuclear arsenals.

A bigger criticism of the new agreement is that it reduced the entire U.S.-Russian relationship to Cold-War-style arms control and little else. In fact, at various points over the last year, it looked as though the idea of “resetting” the U.S.-Russian relationship had given away to the minutiae of mundane topics such as the exchange of telemetry information. But the reality is that these disagreements are real, and it would have been wrong to expect that without the arms control process, Russia would have stopped worrying about, say, U.S. missile defense interceptors in Europe. Quite the opposite: As we saw during the George W. Bush years, in the absence of a dialogue, even small misunderstandings and unjustified fears can grow to grotesque proportions and poison the U.S.-Russian relationship for years to come.

If anything, the new treaty has offered both Washington and Moscow an opportunity to discuss their disagreements. The solutions might not be perfect, but the very fact that they were originated from a dialogue is an incredible step forward. For example, even though the new arms control treaty won’t include limits on missile defense, Russia is now on the record stating its concern about the deployments and the United States is now on the record stating that Russia’s concerns are unjustified. Obviously official communication won’t solve the larger problem, but it should make the issue of missile defense much less politicized than it has been in the last 10 years or so.

Nor will the treaty by itself bring about complete nuclear disarmament. But it’s an extremely important, necessary step toward that goal. So my answer is yes–the effort that went into formulating the new treaty was definitely worth it. With the caveat, of course, that it is only the first step of many.

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