WEEKEND READ: Creative destruction

While the Kremlin signed its last nuclear weapons treaty with the US from a position of weakness, today Moscow sees an opportunity to approach the United States from a position of strength.

Stratfor.com

The bilateral strategic arms control regime between the United States and Russia – essentially static for many years – could be revitalised in 2009.

The treaty in its current form is "between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms” (known colloquially as START I) and will expire on December 5, 2009. Both sides have a keen interest in its extension and ultimate replacement.

Though real substantive action is unlikely before President-elect Barack Obama enters office, some meaningful action on a bilateral strategic arms agreement between the United States and Russia may be on the horizon.

The expiration of START has been anticipated for years now, but Washington has shown little interest in moving forward on strategic arms control. Even before the 9/11 attacks, the US national security establishment was struggling with a deep uncertainty about the need for nuclear deterrence in the post-Cold War world and no longer wanted to be locked into a highly structured and inflexible treaty governing force structure.

START I, crafted just before the Soviet collapse, is characteristic of Cold War-era treaties – complex, detailed and entailing a rigorous declaration, inspection and verification regime. By comparison, the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT, also known as the 'Moscow Treaty'), signed in 2002, is an astonishingly short document, amounting to a single page. This brevity was possible (and, more important, the treaty was verifiable) because SORT was underpinned by the START I regime. SORT will not endure much beyond the expiration of START I, requiring only that on the last day of 2012 the United States and Russia shall have an aggregate number of deployed strategic warheads of between 1,700 and 2,200 apiece.

This specific range of aggregate warhead totals – 1,700 to 2,200 – actually came from a Pentagon study on post-Cold War requirements for an effective nuclear deterrent. Essentially, the White House took what the Pentagon wanted to do anyway and crafted a treaty asking Russia to do the same thing.

But both Washington and Moscow want something here. The United States – despite its strong desire for maximising flexibility – does recognise the value of a long-term, verifiable and stable nuclear balance with Russia. With a properly tailored regime of regular declarations and inspections, the Pentagon can establish, with an acceptable degree of confidence, the status of Russia’s nuclear forces and significantly reduce the burden on operational forces to monitor and hedge against the unknowns.

Despite the fact that it won the Cold War, the United States has no interest in going back to the days of nuclear brinkmanship. It has become accustomed to and welcomes the ongoing stability of the post-Cold War nuclear balance, so long as it retains enough flexibility to have options for dealing with other nuclear powers.

Thus, while the United States seems interested only in something loose like SORT, a somewhat longer document (though significantly shorter than START I, if Washington has its way) will almost certainly be necessary to establish declaration, inspection and verification regimes that will ensure an acceptable degree of confidence in the fidelity of both sides. Washington considers this an opportunity to set aside START I and tailor a regime for the 21st century. But if that agreement cannot be crafted quickly, an extension of START I may be considered – if only to bridge the gap.

For Russia, there is a strong desire for a long-term cap on the size of the US nuclear arsenal. Moscow remembers all too well how US defence spending during the Reagan years helped drive the Soviet Union into the ground. Russia is well aware that it cannot hope to compete in another arms race with the resources and raw economic power of the United States.

Meanwhile, old age is wreaking havoc on Moscow’s nuclear arsenal, where delivery systems are becoming increasingly archaic and nowhere near enough replacements are being produced fast enough to sustain the arsenal. Thus, the further Russia can convince the United States to reduce its own arsenal, the more obtainable a long-term arsenal quantitatively comparable to Washington’s can be.

But while the Kremlin signed SORT from a position of weakness, Moscow today sees an opportunity to approach the United States from a position of strength. In 2009, Russia will come to the table having consolidated its political, economic and military power under the tenure of President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin and having essentially annexed two secessionist territories from Georgia. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s November 5 State of the State address was filled with defiance – not the least because, from the Kremlin’s point of view, not only is Obama amenable to such an agreement but he also will be weak in dealing with Russia and peripheral states of the former Soviet Union. (Whether this proves to be the case is another question.)

At the end of the day, the Kremlin will want a new agreement. But it will not be rubber-stamping any numbers brought directly from the Pentagon this time around. It will push for a more rigorous treaty that keeps the scale of the US arsenal down and constrains Washington’s flexibility. And it will push hard – or use concessions as a lever – to challenge the proposed US ballistic missile defence installations slated for Poland and the Czech Republic.

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

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