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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 19, October 1997

The Current and Future US-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agenda
by Jack Mendelsohn

The Current Agenda

On 26 January, 1996, the US Senate gave its advice and consent to ratification of START II (strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty). The treaty, originally signed in January 1993, will eliminate within a decade after its entry into force all multiple-warhead (MIRVed), land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles and reduce the number of deployed Russian and US strategic warheads to 3,000-3,500 on each side. The Russian parliament (Duma) has not yet acted on this agreement, however, primarily because Duma members have objected to:

(1) the specific terms of the START II treaty, arguing that the reduction schedule is too rapid and the residual warhead levels too high;

(2) the US missile defense program, believing that the basic strategic relationship is threatened both by the push for a national missile defense (NMD) and by plans for highly-capable theater missile defense systems (TMD); and

(3) the expansion of NATO, because they consider it an effort to exclude Russia from European security issues and, in particular, because they consider the possible future entry into the alliance of any former Soviet Republics, such as the Baltic countries or Ukraine, as a hostile act.


To help deal with the first of these three Russian concerns, the US and Russia have just completed a series of supplementary agreements and protocols to the START II treaty itself. The two countries agreed to shift the final implementation date by five years, from the first day of 2003 to the last day of 2007.(1) All the systems scheduled for elimination under START II, however, will have to be deactivated by the end of 2003, either by removing the nuclear reentry vehicles from the missiles or by taking other jointly agreed steps. The two countries also agreed to negotiate, after START II enters into force, a START III agreement which will lower the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads permitted each nation to 2,000 to 2,500, also by the end of 2007.

On 26 September in New York, the US and Russia signed a protocol to the START II treaty adjusting the implementation schedule and exchanged letters codifying the commitment to deactivate systems scheduled for elimination. Presumably to increase the likelihood of obtaining the deeper reductions promised for START III, the Russian letter on deactivation contained a unilateral statement cautioning that, "[t]aking into account the supreme national interests of the country, the Russian Federation proceeds from the understanding that well in advance of the above deactivation deadline the START III Treaty will be achieved and will enter into force." (Emphasis added.)

Missile Defense

To help address concerns which exist both in Russia and the US over a national missile defense, the Clinton administration has adopted and, in the face of Congressional pressure, stuck to a "3+3" policy for its NMD program. The "3+3" policy calls for developing over the next three years a prototype national missile defense system which could be ready for deployment within another three years if and when the decision to create such a defense is taken.

To deal with newly developing theater missile defense (TMD) systems, the US and Russia also signed on 26 September a series of agreements to help distinguish between permitted TMD and limited NMD systems. The two nations agreed to:

  • ban the testing of TMD systems against target vehicles with velocities above 5 kms/sec or ranges that exceed 3,500 kms.;
  • not develop, test or deploy space-based TMD interceptors;
  • exchange information on TMD plans, programs and production; and
  • notify 10 days in advance of any test launches of TMD interceptors against ballistic target-missiles.

The TMD agreement does not establish any explicit limitations on TMD interceptor performance (the limits are only on target vehicles) and it does not impose any other restrictions on TMD development or deployment. Determining whether a nation's high-speed TMD systems comply or not with the ABM Treaty is the responsibility of that nation.

The US, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on succession which multilateralizes the ABM Treaty to include most of those countries on whose territory key elements of the former Soviet ABM system - i.e., early-warning radars and test ranges - are deployed. The successor states "collectively" assume the rights and obligations of the USSR, which means that the four successor states are permitted only a single ABM-deployment area.

NATO Expansion

To help reassure Russia that NATO expansion is neither exclusionary nor hostile, the NATO alliance and Moscow signed the Founding Act in Paris on 27 May, 1996. The Founding Act establishes a NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council which will provide a forum for discussion and potential action on issues of common interest in Europe. While, in principle, the Founding Act is meant to create a more interactive NATO-Russian relationship, there remains a difference of views between Moscow, Washington and Western Europe over whether the Act is legally binding or not; whether it gives Russia too much of a voice or not enough; and whether it has "bought off" Russia for NATO's entire "open door" expansion policy or just for the first tranche of three new members.

In the meantime, sensing its deteriorating security situation, Russia has abandoned its long-standing nuclear "no-first-use" policy and is in the midst of a debate over whether, given the deplorable state of its conventional forces, the lack of budgetary resources, and NATO's creep toward its border, it should increase its reliance on nuclear weapons (see section on Tactical Nuclear Weapons and SLCMs, below). And Russian President Yeltsin, on the eve of the Founding Act's signature, warned that NATO would "fully undermine" its relations with Russia if it expanded to include any of the former Soviet Republics, generally understood to pertain to the Baltics and Ukraine.

The Prospects for Russian Ratification of START II

A key arms control question which remains after the START II protocol, the Founding Act and the theater missile defense accords, is whether the Yeltsin administration will now press for, and the Russian Duma act favorably on, the START II treaty. In mid-September, President Yeltsin sent before the Duma his Foreign and Defense Ministers, Yevgeniy Primakov and Igor Sergeyev, to energize the START II ratification process, and there is some reason to hope that the debate in the Duma will begin this fall and that START II could be brought to a vote by early 1998.

Russian ratification of START II is by no means assured, however. If the treaty fails to be approved, if Russian conventional forces remain weak and its defense resources scarce, and if US TMD and NMD programs proceed apace and NATO expansion continues its "open door" policy, then undoubtedly Russia - and subsequently, the US - will be forced to reappraise its political and strategic relationship with the other nation. This reassessment is likely to take place at a time when the parliaments in both countries are dominated by conservative forces, and at a time when Russia is feeling beleaguered. Consequently, failure to ratify START II is likely to have an adverse impact on the chances for further nuclear force reductions, other arms control initiatives, sustained Nunn-Lugar financial assistance, and continued constraints on missile defense deployments.

A more likely scenario, however, barring any major political perturbations, is that START II will be ratified by the Duma this year (or early next), that the START II Protocol and TMD documents will be returned to the US Senate and approved in the spring (but not without some pressure from the Clinton administration), and that the START II treaty will enter into force within the next 6-10 months.

The Future Agenda

Even under the most optimistic of scenarios, however, a great deal of work remains to be done to ensure that START II is implemented and that the steady decrease in deployed nuclear weapons in Russian and US arsenals promised by the START process continues. This future strategic arms control agenda includes negotiating the START III treaty, devising mutually acceptable means of deactivating weapons, taking the first steps toward greater transparency in nuclear infrastructures, and dealing with tactical nuclear weapons.

Negotiating START III

The Russian unilateral statement (see START II section, above) makes it clear that Moscow seeks a prompt follow-on agreement to ensure that it does not have to undertake a costly build up of strategic forces to START II levels. Last March, at Helsinki, the US and Russia agreed that the START III negotiations would include the following "basic components:"

  • a lower aggregate level of 2,000 to 2,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads for each party;
  • deactivation by 31 December, 2003 of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles to be eliminated under START II;
  • conversion of the START treaties from a 15-year agreement with five-year renewal periods to unlimited duration; and
  • measures relating to the transparency of strategic nuclear warhead inventories and the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads.

In addition, the US and Russia agreed to explore as separate issues possible measures relating to nuclear long-range sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) and tactical nuclear weapons systems, including appropriate confidence-building and transparency measures, and issues related to transparency in nuclear materials.

Warhead Levels

A START III level of 2,000 to 2,500 deployed warheads would reduce significantly the need for Russia to build up its strategic nuclear forces to maintain numerical parity with the US. Two issues are raised, however, by the new, lower warhead numbers. The first is whether the START III warhead level is separable from the other "components" of a follow-on agreement, and thus quickly insertable into the START II agreement, or whether agreement on lower warhead levels is contingent on the successful negotiation of measures on stockpile transparency and warhead destruction. The second is whether the Russians are actually prepared to accept the 2,000 to 2,500 warhead level for START III (which had been the original Russian position going into the START II negotiations and again at Helsinki).

Russian analysts and government officials have since Helsinki indicated that this level may be too high for Russia by about 500 warheads. Since Russian deactivation and elimination costs are relatively constant (they are driven by the START II requirement to de-MIRV their large, land-based missile force), and since they are eligible for US Nunn-Lugar financial assistance in eliminating those weapons, the lower the START III warhead number, the less costly for Russia will be its modernization and replacement program. In short, indications are that Russia may seek agreement on a warhead level in START III of 2,000 or below (e.g., 1500).


First agreed to in principle in 1994, the US and Russia have now exchanged letters committing the two countries to begin work as soon as START II enters into force on an agreement to "deactivate," that is, remove from operational service, all the strategic nuclear delivery vehicles to be eliminated under the treaty.

The US proposal for deactivation involves the removal of nuclear reentry vehicles (warheads) from those missiles destined to be eliminated. Russia has stated only that it prefers "other," unspecified steps. According to a recent report, Russian experts argue that they do not have adequate storage facilities for those missile warheads that would have to be removed under a deactivation program.(2)

Consequently, they are considering deactivation options that would involve, for example, removing batteries that operate the missile's guidance system or disabling silo lid-opening mechanisms to prevent a missile launch. While the two countries seem to be somewhat apart on their approach to deactivation, there is no strategic reason - although there may be political ones - why a deactivation agreement need be "symmetric" in terms of the methods employed to remove a system from operational status. But an agreement would probably have to be symmetric in terms of its verifiability and its reversibility (the time required to restore a deactivated system to operational status).

Much of the work done on designing a program for deactivating systems scheduled to be eliminated under START II could be of value if the US and Russia decide to address the de-alerting (eliminating the hair-trigger and extending the response time) of their remaining nuclear forces. Although not on the formal START III agenda, de-alerting would be of great value in reducing the threat of launch-on-warning or of inadvertent, accidental or autonomous nuclear release. Moreover, if the US were to agree to de-alert a portion of its forces, that might serve to bridge the potential gap (of, say, 500 warheads) between Russian and US deployments in START III.

Stockpile Transparency and Warhead Destruction

The US and Russia have already taken some very basic steps toward establishing a warhead destruction regime (in connection with the agreement to purchase 500 tons of highly-enriched Russian uranium). In addition, the parties had been discussing a cooperative agreement that would permit the exchange of restricted data relating to stockpiles. These talks broke off in November, 1995, however, without having made much progress.

The issue of stockpile transparency and warhead dismantlement is of particular interest for several reasons. For one, there have never been any reliable figures on the size of the Russian stockpile. According to most estimates, the Soviet Union possessed more than 27,000 nuclear warheads in 1991, including more than 11,000 strategic and over 15,000 tactical nuclear weapons.(3) But some believe that the margin of error in Soviet/Russian stockpile estimates may be as much as 10,000 warheads. Secondly, there is considerable concern in the West that Russian nuclear weapons, particularly those that are transportable and in poorly protected storage areas, are susceptible to theft, misuse or misappropriation. A transparency and dismantlement regime, even if focused only on strategic warheads, will presumably improve the overall accounting and security arrangements and eliminate a number of surplus, nondeployed, but nonetheless dangerous, weapons.

Another argument for transparency/dismantlement is that, particularly as deployed warhead numbers get smaller, the size of the non-deployed stockpile becomes more relevant to the potential for "break-out" (a rapid increase in force size). The Russians argue that this is particularly true when reductions are achieved through "downloading" (the removal of warheads from MIRVed systems), as the US and Russia will do in START II, because the stored warheads can be used to quickly reconstitute the force.

Despite the utility of a transparency /dismantlement regime, it is unclear whether the Russian nuclear and security establishment is prepared - as the US seems to be - to open up its "books" and participate in a highly-intrusive monitoring regime. Consequently, since the stockpile transparency and warhead destruction provisions could take quite some time to elaborate, it will be important to avoid linking progress in this area and reductions to 2,000 to 2,500 warheads. This issue is particularly relevant because of the connection the Russians have made, with their unilateral statement noted above, between the conclusion of a START III agreement and the initiation of any deactivation under START II.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons and SLCMs

Tactical nuclear weapons both represent a serious proliferation problem (as illustrated by General Lebed's recent claim that as many as 100 "suitcase" weapons had gone missing) and become a more significant component of national arsenals as the number of strategic nuclear warheads shrinks. To begin to address these issues, and the related one of nuclear-armed SLCMs, the Helsinki summit called for the creation of a separate forum in the START III framework to discuss possible limits on tactical systems and to design confidence-building and transparency measures.

One approach to tactical nuclear weapons limitations might be to have both sides freeze all such deployments during negotiations. Then, both sides might consider an agreement not to deploy any tactical nuclear weapons with operational forces: in effect, keep them in storage. Finally, the sides could proceed to reduce and, eventually, eliminate stockpiles.

Fortunately, as the negotiations are likely to be quite lengthy and difficult, the tactical nuclear weapons and SLCMs discussions have been kept separate from START III. All indications are that Russia is not prepared to abandon tactical nuclear weapons at this time. As a matter of fact, US intelligence believes that changes are under way in Russia's nuclear doctrine which would place "increasing weight on nuclear weapons" to deter aggression.(4) Moreover, as the NATO expansion debate, and earlier the US Nuclear Posture Review, revealed, neither do the NATO allies seem prepared to abandon the "linkage" to the US represented by the hundreds of air-launched US tactical nuclear weapons which remain dedicated to European defense.


Most observers of the US/Russian arms control process agree that a continuation of major strategic offensive force reductions by these two countries will be possible only if the ABM Treaty continues to be respected and a viable cornerstone of the strategic relationship. Indeed, Russian adherence to the START I and START II treaties has been specifically linked by the Yeltsin government to the future of the ABM agreement. Thus, as long as highly-capable theater missile defense systems threaten to circumvent the ABM Treaty, the sustained discussion of TMD issues - such as space-based tracking and battle-management sensors and land- and air-based laser weapons - will remain a key element on future strategic arms control agenda.

At the September signing ceremony for the TMD demarcation and succession documents, both Russian Foreign Minister Primakov and the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Hennadiy Udovenko, indicated that they considered the TMD discussions to be an on-going process. Primakov noted that, "[t]he drawn up agreements reflect the current state of affairs with the problem of delimiting the strategic and non-strategic ABM [TMD]. However, the technologies of the nonstrategic ABM are yet at an early stage of development and they will presumably be perfected. Hence, it will probably be necessary to hold more consultations in the future in order to deal with possible problems and concerns which may arise in the ABM nations during the formation of a system to combat nonstrategic ballistic missiles."

There are two additional - and prickly - items related to missile defense agenda which may force their way onto the future strategic arms control agenda. One is the Congressionally-favored mandate to renegotiate the terms of the ABM Treaty to permit larger scale NMD deployments (e.g., 400-600 interceptors). The Russians have never shown the slightest interest in an expanded national missile defense system, and they have made it clear they like the ABM Treaty just as it is.

The other is the proposal, put forward to President Clinton by President Yeltsin just as the US was preparing to fire a land-based laser against a satellite, to undertake negotiations to ban anti-satellite weapons (ASAT). It is too early to predict whether these ASAT talks will eventuate, but the issue is likely to remain on the table because of the potential to convert some ASAT weapons into missile defense systems.


Whether all the protocols, letters, acts, memoranda and agreed statements negotiated and signed at Helsinki, Paris and New York between March and September of this year have succeeded in their purpose should be evident within the next six months. If START II is ratified by the Duma, if the TMD discussions eventually bound the threat to the ABM Treaty, and if the Founding Act succeeds in mitigating the sting of NATO expansion, then the strategic arms control agenda of the US and Russia for the balance of the Clinton and Yeltsin administrations - and into the terms of their immediate successors - will contain a set of truly critical issues.


1. The 1993 treaty provided for a ten year reduction period. If the treaty comes into force in 1997, the new protocol will re-establish ten years as the implementation period.

2. See "Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert," by Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel, Scientific American, November, 1997, pp. 74-80.

3. Congressional Research Service Brief for Congress, "91144: Nuclear Weapons in the former Soviet Union: Location, Command and Control," Updated 24 September, 1997, Amy F. Woolf.

4. Washington Times, 17 October, 1997, p.A1.

Jack Mendelsohn, a former senior foreign service officer who served on the SALT II and START I delegations and with the US mission to NATO, is currently Deputy Director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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