End of the START

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 expires this weekend and a replacement may not be ready before it lapses. That in itself is a statement on the relationship between the Russia and the US.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 (START) is set to expire this coming Saturday. Despite optimistic statements from both Washington and Moscow earlier this week, Thursday came and went without any major statements indicating whether a replacement treaty will be ready to be signed before START lapses. There may still be room for a turn of events; negotiators are reportedly working day and night. But the clock is running down to the wire and that – in and of itself – is noteworthy.

This document has been of foundational significance to the strategic nuclear balance between the United States and Russia for nearly two decades. Though the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty of 2002 (SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty) is scheduled to take effect (and expire) on the last day of 2012, it is a relatively hollow one-page treaty compared to START. START provides much more explicit definitions and rigorous declaration, inspection and verification mechanisms. In other words, it provides transparency that Washington and Moscow have come to know and rely on for the entire post-Cold War period.

Both sides find that transparency valuable because it makes the others’ strategic disposition and capabilities more clear. By reducing the unknowns about the others’ arsenal, this transparency allows further reductions to be made in the size of the world’s two largest – and extremely expensive to maintain – nuclear arsenals. This benefits both sides. In fact, the treaty has a number of political benefits for both sides as well. It is perhaps the one thing that Washington and Moscow can readily agree upon right now, at least in principal. This is one reason why it has been seized upon as a means not only of achieving a pragmatic deal, but also of "resetting” relations between the United States and Russia.

The delay may well indicate that some technical sticking points have cropped up (the devil is in the details with these sorts of treaties because language, definitions and limitations can actually impact the strategic balance). Indeed, though the START replacement has been negotiated on an extremely short timetable, it is certainly noteworthy that a treaty on which both Washington and Moscow broadly agree and support at the highest levels of government is not finished. But the broader significance is what has shifted.

The arms control treaty that has defined the American-Russian strategic balance for nearly two decades is now only tens of hours from lapsing, and the response has been muted — which makes the quietude of Thursday symbolic of the state of the strategic nuclear balance. During the Cold War, this balance between the United States and the Soviets was a defining characteristic of the international system. That Washington and Moscow would allow such a pivotal treaty to come within days of expiration would have been difficult to imagine back then. Yet here we are.

As much as the United States and Russia have locked horns in recent years, neither side really considers a nuclear exchange a serious possibility anymore. Strategic forces remain alert and vigilant, of course. But while technical issues are being hashed out in earnest, it is certainly a statement about the nature of the nuclear balance – amidst the tensest period in American-Russian relations in two decades – that everyone remains perfectly calm.

It is also indicative of Russia’s evolution from a global power to a regional one. As a global rival, Russia locked its proverbial horns with the United States on a strategic level. At that level, START had heightened significance because it guaranteed nuclear parity. Today, this relationship pivots much more on regional concerns because that is where Russia can project power. While the United States cared about Moscow’s nuclear intentions or what Russia did with Cuba during the Cold War, the focus today is squarely on Russia’s periphery and what happens in places like Ukraine and Georgia.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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