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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 46, May 2000

Nuclear Deadlock: A Way Out
By Yevgeny Maslin & Ivan Safranchuck


On April 14, 2000, the State Duma ratified START II. This was a long-awaited decision in Russia, in the US, in Europe, and around the world. However, the way out from the nuclear deadlock between Moscow and Washington is yet to be found. The ratification vote is only the first step in facilitating further negotiations and, despite its symbolic importance, will carry little meaning without further endeavors. What are the prospects for real progress in the wake of the Duma's move?


START II has been ratified by Russia on terms which make its prompt entry into force practically impossible. The Bill adopted states that the Treaty can enter into force only after a 1997 protocol to START II and a package of amendments to the ABM Treaty are ratified in the US. Moreover, the Bill contains specific parameters which should be included in START III. If START III is not concluded soon after START II ratification this is also, according to the Bill, a reason for Russia to withdraw from START II.1

The understanding in Moscow is that START II makes sense only if START III negotiations follow and are swiftly concluded. In addition, the latter must compensate for some of the disadvantages of START II.


Important discussions on the likely shape and scope of START III have already taken place, leading in 1997 to the Helsinki accords establishing a framework and parameters - including a provisional target of reductions to 2,000-2,500 strategic warheads per side - for the Treaty. There are also the above-mentioned provisions of the Russian ratification law, laying out concrete conditions for the agreement.

Both sets of documents involve a substantial extension of the START negotiation process, specifying the inclusion of weapon systems - tactical nuclear weapons, sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), etc. - considered by neither of the first two START agreements.

The basic Russian attitude to maintaining and developing its nuclear arsenal is based on the paramount importance of preserving nuclear parity with the United States. There are different reasons for the identification of parity as a strategic priority, not least among them the sense - theoretically undefined but politically powerful - of the non-military importance and utility of nuclear weapons in the superpower security relationship. Given the grave doubts harboured by Russia over NATO expansion, particularly in the wake of the Kosovo conflict, and US NMD plans, which are widely regarded as a bid for strategic superiority, the importance attached to nuclear weapons in this broad sense of status and influence, as well as in the narrower sense of security and deterrence, is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future.

For reasons of available financial resources, there is only one way for Russia to preserve parity - to proceed with deeper cuts in its strategic arsenal under new agreements with the US. The Putin Government would now like to see START III take the level of nuclear warheads for each side down to between 1,000-1,500, considerably lower than the Helsinki parameters to which the US still appears determined to adhere.2


US plans for NMD deployment obviously have an impact on the Russian perception of the strength of its nuclear forces. This impact is such that, for Moscow, further progress in nuclear disarmament is possible only if the issue of the preservation or modification of the ABM Treaty can be resolved. Were the US to abrogate or withdraw from the Treaty, Russia would walk away from the entire START, and broader arms control, process.3

The ABM Treaty was based on the logic of nuclear competition between the two sides. The lack of a shield, meaning that each party was vulnerable to attack, set the climate for negotiations on nuclear reductions. If this logic is reviewed, then all its consequences should be assessed.

The US argues that its NMD plans do not undermine Russia's deterrence potential. According to the official statements of the US administration, this system is not directed against Russia. Russia officially dismisses this claim. However, in informal discussions many Russian military experts admit that some aspects of the US NMD plan - at least in its initial form - would not affect Russia's deterrence potential.

The US eagerness to provide security for itself against new threats is not always understood in Russia, where most experts believe that those threats adduced by the US as justifications for NMD deployment will not emerge within the next 10-15 years.4 However, the US perception of threats is its own business and it has the right to formulate and protect itself from these challenges. The only important condition is mutual respect for the other party's vision of national defense. And if the US wants Russia to take its concerns into account, Washington should do the same.

The deployment of a limited missile defense system doesn't undermine Russia's deterrence potential in the current circumstances but does hamper the full implementation of START II. Russia needs not only US pledges that the NMD system will not be targeted against it, but appropriate technical assurances that this could not happen at a later date. These assurances include stating the scale of the NMD system and a commitment not to expand it while the ABM Treaty is in force.

The core of such technical guarantees is the availability to Russia of MIRVed ICBMs - intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with multiple, independently re-targetable re-entry vehicles, providing the capacity for a single missile to strike more than one target. The START II provision prohibiting MIRVed ICBMs is unlikely to survive any agreement with the United States to modify the ABM Treaty to allow NMD deployment. To compensate for any such return to MIRVing, Russia could confirm elimination of heavy missiles and maybe even limit MIRVing to mobile ICBMs, which would act to restrict the maximum number of MIRVs per missile to three. Moreover, there could be a special sub-ceiling for the number of MIRVed ICBMs. This reconstruction of START II obligations would be sufficient to enforce deterrence capability while NMD becomes operational and to leave open the chance for further quantitative and qualitative reductions in nuclear arms.

The decision to return to MIRVed ICBMs needs a lot of will, first of all on the US side. The ban on this type of missiles was deemed to become a big step towards greater crisis stability. However, we believe that the drive to de-MIRV ICBMs didn't pay back as much as was expected.

De-MIRVing and Crisis Stability

The problem is that crisis stability doesn't increase automatically with the elimination of MIRVs. The key element of crisis stability is the overall scheme of nuclear decision-making: is it based on launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack? Presumably, the ban on MIRVs was intended to serve as an incentive to shift to a launch-under-attack posture. However, the intention of the Russian leadership is now to maintain the launch-on-warning option even under START II limitations. Without the shift to launch-under-attack, de-MIRVing in practice changes not the scheme of decision-making but the concept of targeting, leading to a greater concentration on counter-value strikes to compensate for the loss of multiple-strike capable missiles.

The effort to increase crisis stability should underpin the logic of future talks on strategic nuclear reductions. However, crisis stability can be enforced only through cutting the counter-force capacity of both parties, which needs to include a ban on MIRVing ICBMs but cannot be limited to it. Moreover, the START II ban on MIRV-ed ICBMs is thus far only virtual, as the Treaty is not yet in force and is unlikely to become so in the near future.

The decision to retain MIRVed ICBMs is not an easy one. However, the nature of the choice involved has to be clearly understood. The choice is not between good and bad disarmament, but between disarmament and deadlock. Seen in this stark context, the retention of MIRVs are a modest price to pay, in particular because the increase in crisis stability which it was hoped de-MIRVing would bring about is not likely, given Russia's present nuclear stance, to happen. The 'return' (virtual, given the status of START II) of MIRVs should be regarded as a tactical step backwards designed to preserve a chance for further steps forward, certain to include a ban on MIRVs later on. However, to really produce an increase in crisis stability, such a ban should be implemented in the context of the development of other means to maintain deterrence while the "nuclear umbrella" remains in place.

The quantitative parameters of the new START treaty should be reduced to at least 1,000-1,500 deployed warheads. It will not be necessary to insist, within this overall total, on sub-ceilings for different parts of the nuclear triad (land-, sea-, and air-launched weapons). The treaty should provide - over a term of perhaps 7-10 years - for general quantitative limitations for the nuclear forces, whilst each party should decide by itself how many deployed warheads it will require in each branch of triad.

Conclusion: The Broader Context

Nuclear disarmament can't always be a bilateral US-Russian process, since the provisions of such agreements now affect the interests and power-capabilities of other states. In the last 10-15 years, the world has dramatically changed and, in the process of discussing nuclear arms reduction issues, Russia and the US can't take into account only the positions of each other. A number of states and non-state actors striving to raise their influence in the international system are accumulating power and becoming potential threats to both Washington and Moscow. Moreover, they may try to use this force not only in regions where the interests of the two superpowers lie, but against the territory of the two states themselves.

Under these circumstances, Russia and the US have to review their attitude towards certain aspects of the nuclear balance. The US dreams of the new technological-military shield of NMD; Russia speaks about increasing the role of tactical nuclear weapons or deterring regional and local menaces with the help of strategic offensive arms. Such different approaches may become a source of serious contradictions and heated debate in START and ABM discussions. Each party is yet to determine the role of nuclear weapons in the modern world and their significance. At this point, we can neither preclude nor presume upon the possibility that they will end up with different visions of the problem. In such conditions, it is quite difficult to seek any fundamentally new agreements and elaborate a new logic of nuclear disarmament.

At present, the parties need provisional agreements, which won't infringe their interests and will enable them to get out of the nuclear blind alley; which will allow them to preserve the major treaties and negotiation mechanisms and to enjoy a 'timeout' by maintaining the nuclear balance so that in the future they may conclude new agreements.

This logic calls for the modification of the ABM Treaty in such a manner that defines a limited missile defense system, which won't undermine Russia's deterrence potential. Russia should obtain appropriate technical and political assurances.

The provisional character of such agreements doesn't mean that the parties can't now agree the basis for new qualitative nuclear arms limitations. For instance, it would be reasonable if START III provided for the verified withdrawal and storage of nuclear material from the warheads attributed to the launchers to be eliminated. This procedure will be an important first step in ensuring the irreversibility of nuclear reductions.

The ratification of START II enables the parties to resume the process of nuclear disarmament discussions. However, it would be negligent to think that the ratification itself charts a course out of the deadlock.

Notes and References

1. For details and documentation related to the ratification legislation, see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 45, the website of the PIR Center, http://www.pircenter.org, and the START section of the website of the Centre for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology), http://www.armscontrol.ru/start. For the texts of agreements and protocols related to the ABM Treaty, see the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry, http://www.mid.ru/mid/eng/abm.htm.

2. US officials have been keen to dampen down speculation that, in advance of the Clinton-Putin summit in early June, the US is now prepared to consider START III warheads below the 2,000-2,500 range set out at Helsinki. An unnamed State Department official was recently quoted as insisting that Russia's preference for a 1,000-1,500 cap was unacceptable: "We have, as you necessarily would, examined the implications for our force structure and strategic deterrence of what their proposal is, but we have not changed our position…" (Clinton unlikely to bring new nuke reduction proposals to Moscow - official, Agence France Presse, May 11, 2000.) See News Review in this issue for further details and comment.

3. Addressing the Duma during the April 14 ratification debate, Putin observed: "If the United States abandons the 1972 agreement, we will have the right to pull out not only of START II but also from the entire arms reduction and control system… I want to stress that if this happens, we will…withdraw…from the whole system of treaties on limitation and control of strategic and conventional weapons…" (Russia lawmakers OK START II, Associated Press, April 14.)

4. The Putin Government is keen to stress that it takes the issue of missile proliferation seriously. Its focus, however, is on the exploration of arms control and diplomatic options for reducing the risk of such proliferation. The Government has collected a number of these options together in what it promulgates as the 'Putin Program', central to which is "implementation of the idea of a multilateral global system of monitoring the non-proliferation of missiles and missile technologies." (Russian Foreign Ministry Statement 306-15-4-2000, April 15.)

Colonel-General (ret.) Yevgeny Maslin, former Chief of the 12th GUMO (12th Major Directorate in the Defense Ministry) is Senior Advisor to the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Russia. Ivan Safranchuck is Project Director & Research Associate at the PIR Center.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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