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11 Nov, 2009 12:51

STARTing over

STARTing over

Moscow and Washington are working together on signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) after the current agreement expired on December 5, 2009.

The treaty forms the cornerstone of cooperation between the United States and Russia to cut down both their stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them.

The current START agreement was born from the original Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were several rounds of SALT meetings, beginning in 1969, each aimed at freezing or cutting-back nuclear arsenals and their delivery systems (rockets, aircraft, submarines, and so forth). SALT became START under US President Ronald Reagan, who sought to bring down the number of nukes between the two global superpowers, rather than just cap their numbers at current levels.

In the dying days of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, there was a new head of state in Washington, and Moscow turned its eye towards cooperation. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and then-US President George Bush Sr. finally brought the START agreement into force, signing it on July 31, 1991 – a mere five months before the USSR would collapse. According to the Arms Control Association, today the United States has about 10,000 strategic and tactical warheads at its disposal (3,696 deployed), while Russia retains between 15,000 and 17,000 (4,237 deployed). Under the agreement, the nuclear-capable former soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus destroyed their arsenals.

In January 1993, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the START II agreement. This was primarily aimed at bringing down both nations’ arsenals of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which are essentially large rockets that can carry smaller nuclear missiles within. MIRVs are normally used as first-strike weapons, meant to land the first blow in a nuclear conflict.

A political spanner in the works

Though ratified by both sides, START II never came into being, because of Russian concerns over American plans at that time to deploy an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe. The previous US administration led by President George W. Bush maintained that the shield’s purpose was to protect Europe from missiles launched by nuclear-capable forces in the Middle East, especially Iran. Russia – at the time headed by Vladimir Putin – saw a shield so close to its borders as a threat to the status-quo balance of mutually-assured destruction in the case of a nuclear attack.

This shield would also be a violation of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, which had been the culmination of the original SALT agreement. In 2002, however, the US unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty for the purpose of developing the shield, and Russia, subsequently, withdrew from START II.

Since signing the original START agreement, though, Russia and the United States have joined other nations in making several advancements toward the goal of a nuclear-free world. In 1996, both signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty adopted by the United Nations, designed to keep nations from testing nuclear weapons.

In 2002, in an effort to thaw frosty relations between the Kremlin and the White House, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush signed and ratified the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). This aimed to cut-back the total number of nuclear warheads each nation possesses – rather than just the ones currently attached to delivery systems like rockets, planes and submarines – down to less than 2,200. Observers have criticized the SORT agreement though, since either side could unilaterally withdraw from the measures upon three months’ written notice.

New administration: a new hope?

The Obama administration seems keen to make a renewed treaty a key element of his stated goal to “reset” Russia-US relations. The first steps toward this end were evidenced by the US when Obama visited Moscow and after declared an end to the warmongering Bush-era plans for an Eastern European missile shield system. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised the move, and followed suit by scrapping Kremlin plans to deploy missiles in the country’s western Kaliningrad region.

The US plans to replace this with a missile system based in Southern and Central Europe – again, aimed primarily at countering threats from nuclear players in the Middle East – chiefly Iran. “Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies,” Obama said. “It is more comprehensive than the previous program; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost effective, and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the US homeland.” The Kremlin also took a softer stance on the issue following Washington’s about-face on missile defense. “No one is saying that missile defense is harmful in itself,” said Medvedev, “or poses a threat to someone.”

After meeting in London, Obama and Medvedev signed a “Joint Understanding for the START Follow-On Treaty”, that will lay the framework for what will become START’s eventual successor. Since Obama’s decision, both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor James Jones have visited Moscow to begin hammering out the details. In general, the Joint Understanding lays out a vision for a new START agreement cutting both sides’ warhead stockpiles from their current levels down to less than 1,675 and strategic delivery vehicles to less than 1,100 for each side.

A joint statement from Obama and Medvedev at the conference read, in part: “We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world, while recognizing that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations. We agreed to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with a new, legally-binding treaty.”

According to a White House executive summary, the new agreement will be in-effect for ten years, and includes “effective verification measures” for determining if both sides are following the treaty’s provisions. The Joint Understanding agreement states that these measures would take the form of inspections, data exchanges, notifications, and “confidence-building and transparency measures.” The envisioned result will be to “enhance the security of both the US and Russia, as well as provide predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces.”

Timing is everything

Russian officials seem to be taking a position of guarded optimism. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “We believe that intensive efforts will allow us to fulfill our presidents' agreements to sign a new START treaty by the time the current treaty expires.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Nesterenko echoed those sentiments, saying he felt certain Jones’ visit to Moscow “will facilitate the successful completion of the talks in time.”

For the Americans’ part, National Security Council spokesman Benjamin Chang assured that the White House and the Kremlin will “make every effort to fulfill their presidents’ pledge to conclude negotiations for a new treaty by December.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the agreement had the potential to set an example to other nations with nuclear aspirations. “We are under no illusions that this START agreement will persuade Iran and North Korea to end their illicit nuclear activities,” said Clinton. “But it will demonstrate that the United States is living up to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligation to work toward nuclear disarmament.”

The timing of this agreement also has significance for the Obama Administration, as the Nobel Committee’s presentation of Obama’s Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway should take place on December 10. Amid criticism at home and abroad that he has not accomplished enough to be deserving of the honor, the passage of the new START agreement may perhaps give Obama – and, by extension, his administration – the justification he needs for receiving the prestigious award.

Matt Trezza, RT

Documents related:

START I treaty (full text)

Russia-US Document of Understanding on START follow-on

Read also:

Experts on new Russia-US START treaty