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11 Nov, 2009 12:05

Forging a new START

Forging a new START

As the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) draws near, there is a renewed energy surrounding both Russia and the United States to take the next step in the disarmament process.

Both Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have made it clear that continuing to develop positive relations between their two countries is essential, and it is agreed on the surface, at least, that the new START agreement and how it plays out will be a good indicator as to the sincerity of their words.

For the most part, the world community believes that a new agreement is in order, but the situation is far more complex than putting signatures to parchment. Each side has new issues and interests to bring to the table that could easily compromise negotiations and are beyond the control of the two main countries involved. There is even some speculation as to whether a new treaty is even possible given the new, ever-changing geopolitical climate.

The current nuclear weapons arsenal was amassed during the Cold War as two countries with differing ideologies faced off in a global power play. START 1 was signed in 1991 by Presidents George H. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev as necessary means to reel in both the US and the Soviet Union, with both parties recognizing the true threat of such military stockpiles. Since 1991 the world has changed drastically. The Soviet Union no longer exists and the interests of the United States have moved away from any sort of “Iron Curtain” to the deserts of the Middle East.

Since the Obama administration has come into power there has been a concerted effort to “reset” relations with modern Russia. This policy was even physically demonstrated by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in the form of a gag gift to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov – a reset button. Though there were problems in the translation of the word “reset” on the button itself, Clinton stated the gift “represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is, ‘We want to reset our relationship.’ And so we will do it together.”

The optimism presented in the Secretary of State’s gesture was met in kind by Russian interests as well. Following Hilary Clinton’s October visit to Moscow, Joseph Cirincione of Ploughshares Foundation told RT, “I expect that we will have a deal on December 5, and this will be a major part of resetting US-Russia relations.”

Arguably the most important topic in terms of resetting relations between the two powerhouse countries is maintaining military security – specifically missile defense. In October 2009, both the US and Russia started talks in Geneva about renewing START 1. On the outset, the possibility of a successful agreement seems promising. The Russian government announced the progress following a telephone conversation between the two heads of state, “Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama are counting on preparing a legally binding document on the START agreement by the beginning of December,” the Kremlin said.

ABM concerns

To gain a perspective on the possible success of a new START, it is important to study the success of previous disarmament treaties and how they relate to the current political structure. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 (ABM Treaty), was signed by both the USSR and the US to ban the use and further development of missile defense systems. Both parties adhered to the treaty until 2002, when the Bush administration pulled out of the agreement in order to develop a comprehensive missile defense shield, allegedly to protect from an Iranian nuclear threat. The American plan would have put radar systems and defense missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, too close to the Russian border for the Kremlin to be comfortable.

In a strong-arm reaction to US plans to increase its military footprint into former Soviet territories, President Medvedev announced in his annual state of the nation speech that he would deploy short ranged missiles to Kaliningrad near the Polish border. Shortly after President Obama’s visit to Moscow in July, Medvedev addressed the press on the matter of America’s missile defense intentions at the G8 summit in Italy. “If we don’t manage to agree on the issues, you know the consequences. What I said during my state of the nation address has not been revoked,” Medvedev said

The US claimed the reasoning for the strategic placement of systems within the Czech Republic and Poland hinged on the idea that Iran was developing long range delivery systems for their future nuclear arsenal. Citing new information that Iran had changed its strategy from long range to short ranged weapons delivery systems, the Obama administration announced in September, that they would be scrapping the plans for developing a missile defense shield in Central Europe. As the missile defense shield was a key bone of contention for the Kremlin, the announcement has eased tensions enough for real talks on the START renewal to continue.

A network of treaties

Though a lot of focus has been placed on the renewal of START 1, it is important to recognize that it is just one part of a labyrinth of disarmament agreements between Russia (or the former Soviet Union) and the United States. The primary focus of START 1 was to dramatically reduce the number of nuclear warheads each country could use by imposing limits on the means of delivery. Following the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet states Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine followed START 1 by either disposing of their weapons or transferring them to Russia. Though the treaty limits delivery systems, it does not specifically limit the amount of warheads each country could possess. Thus, a second treaty was in order to address this issue.

Though the topic at hand is the renewal of START 1, there have been other “STARTs” as well. START 2 was a treaty that dealt with new MIRV technologies which allowed existing delivery systems to deploy multiple warheads allowing for greater destruction. Signed in 1993 by George H. W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin, START 2 banned the use of MIRV’s, and though the treaty was ratified, it was never enforced. The US Senate immediately adopted the treaty after it was signed by the two presidents, but the Duma put the document on the backburner as a protest to the US invasion of Iraq, Kosovo and even NATO expansion. As time moved on, America’s time and attention moved to modifying the 1972 ABM treaty, a move that was not welcomed at all by Russia. In 2000, the Duma did in fact ratify START 2, but only on the condition that the United States preserve the integrity of the ABM treaty. On June 13, 2002 the Bush administration unilaterally pulled out of the ABM agreement, and in response Russia pulled out of START 2 the following day.

In 2002 the “Treaty Between the United States and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions” (SORT) was ratified. Whereas START 1 dealt with means of delivery, SORT focused primarily on limiting the number of operational warheads each country can own, and as such functioned as a more adequate successor to START 2. Though the intentions of the agreement seem pure enough, there are problems with SORT as well. Though limitations of operational warheads are imposed, there is no wording in the treaty that requires either country to destroy them. Another criticism is the fact that either country can pull out of the agreement with only three months of written notification, leading to speculation that the treaty was designed for dramatic effect, rather than for sincere disarmament efforts.

As both countries are now in the process of negotiating the latest START, the question is: will it be a new, progressive look at the process or will it be merely a continuation of old rhetoric? A look at recent history between the two nations in regards to nuclear disarmament suggests an inherent lack of trust. The key to meeting the December 5, 2009 deadline for the next generation START agreement is to truly emphasize the “resetting” of relations and move past old differences.

The other nuclear weapons states

START 1 was conceived during the Cold War in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were rival nations. The focus of START 1 was to reduce nuclear stockpiles within the two countries who have amassed the majority of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Now that the two nations are no longer at odds, the focus of a new START is aimed less at keeping two nations from destroying each other and more at the simple reduction of a dangerous arsenal. Unfortunately Russia and the United States are not the only players in the nuclear weapons field. Three other nations – the United Kingdom, France and China – make up the remaining Nuclear Weapons States as outlined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Aside from the main five, it is believed that India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have nuclear warheads and that Iran is working to develop its own nuclear weapons program. The concern facing both Russia and the United States is the potential to face hostile nations possessing technology of mass destruction. Given this global dynamic, it is important for the US and Russia to lead by example and successfully reduce their own stockpiles without giving up their own use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The trick is to structure the new START agreement in such a way that allows both nations to work together to achieve disarmament while maintaining security for themselves and the rest of the world as well.

Global Zero Commission

The Global Zero Commission is an organization made up of world leaders and top military brass who have the collective goal of eliminating nuclear weapons entirely from the face of the earth. In a statement released by the group, Richard Burt – the former ambassador to Germany, chief US negotiator for the START 1 negotiations and the Global Zero US chair – said, “Global Zero applauds President Obama on receiving the Nobel Prize and for his extraordinary leadership, along with President Medvedev, to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.”

“This award reflects a new international consensus that whatever stability nuclear arsenals may have provided during the Cold War is now outweighed by the growing risks of proliferation and nuclear terrorism – and that the only way in the long term to eliminate the nuclear threat is to eliminate all nuclear weapons,” Burt said.

Relatively new on the global stage of influence, Global Zero has set out an aggressive timeline to eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenal by 2030, but the first stage of their plan hinges on the success of a new START agreement. Unfortunately, Richard Burt and the Global Zero Commission have doubts as to whether real progress can be achieved by the December 5 deadline.

“There is, I think, a feeling in certain circles in the Russian defense establishment that their conventional forces are rundown and as a result they are going to have to rely more on their nuclear forces,” Burt said, adding, “And if that becomes solidified into Russian policy, then the idea of getting to really significant reductions, to zero, is going to be very difficult.”


In an article released by Voice of America (VOA), Steve Andreasen, an arms control expert from the University of Minnesota, said that both Presidents Obama and Medvedev have agreed to key points in what will become the replacement START agreement.

“They agreed that in terms of strategic nuclear warheads to be limited, the two sides would basically work to get to a range of 1,500 to 1,675 warheads on both sides. And they also agreed that on the question of limiting nuclear delivery vehicles, they would agree to limitations in a range between 500 and 1,100," Andreasen said.

Focusing both on delivery methods and the quantity of warheads is a more comprehensive approach than the original START 1 arrangement and thus would prove to be more beneficial. Also both sides are interested in an accurate verification system that accounts for the warheads and their status. By most accounts, the world community is pleased with the outward progress and apparent sincerity of Obama and Medvedev in forging a new relationship with a mutual goal of disarmament, but the hang-up may be in the deadline alone. Though negotiations toward a new agreement continue in good faith, experts say that having an enforceable treaty in place by December 5 is unlikely. Also, speaking to VOA, Former US National Security Officer Frank Miller spoke on the challenge of the December deadline.

“I have talked with people on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and they suggest that it would take several months for the Senate to organize itself and to hold proper hearings, which would allow US Senate advice and consent to the treaty, ratification of the treaty. So we do face a prospect that the START treaty will expire without a replacement actually being in place by December 5,” Miller said.

In order for a new START to be adopted it will take time, trust and a willingness for both the US and Russia to compromise. Beyond the good faith of the two heads of state, a successful agreement will also require the ratification of both the Senate and the Duma, a process which can be quite lengthy. The hope now is that both parties can work together to negotiate an interim agreement that will extend the current START 1 parameters until a new accord can be written.

Sean Thomas, RT