START treaty a good beginning for US and Russia to reduce nuclear forces

Daryl Kimball [Executive Director, Arms Control Association]: "Defense Minister Ivanov's address at the Berlin security conference reflects Russia's frustration with the current US-Russian impasse on key strategic weapons issues and the Bush administration's resistance to certain bilateral strategic arms agreements. Ivanov's comments do not really break any new ground. Rather, he simply appears to be reiterating Russia's current positions on key strategic weapons issues in a way that might appeal to European leaders who do not wish to see renewed weapons-related tensions between Russia and the West and who fundamentally believe that legally binding, verifiable agreements are important to maintaining consistent norms and legal standards.

His comments relate to two key sets of developments in US and Russian relations and the treaties that have regulated them. In early 2002, the Bush administration abandoned the bilateral US-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) of 1972 and pursued the testing and construction of a rudimentary strategic missile interceptor system. Now, the US plans to install missile interceptors in Poland, which has added to Russian concerns that the United States might redeploy its reserve nuclear forces and utilize leftover nuclear delivery systems for conventional strike missions. In response, President Vladimir Putin has authorized new strategic missile systems and plans to increase the number of warheads carried by certain missile systems. Putin has also proposed that the US and Russia work together on a cooperative strategy to missile defense that ensures that US interceptors and radars do not pose a threat to Russia's shrinking nuclear and missile stockpile. While US officials have in the past few months been receptive to talks on Russia's ideas, no agreement has emerged or is likely.

Also in 2002, President George W. Bush also insisted on a less formal approach to regulating U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear weapons. The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) calls for deeper reductions in deployed strategic nuclear warheads, to 1,700-2,200 each by 2012, but unlike the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) approach, SORT does not require the destruction of strategic delivery systems. SORT also allows each side to store nondeployed warheads. The treaty fails to establish new verification mechanisms, relying instead on those contained in START. The treaty's emphasis on flexibility detracts from its predictability, lessening its value in building a more stable and secure US-Russian relationship.

Now, news reports indicate that neither government wants to extend START past its scheduled expiration on Dec. 5, 2009. US and Russian experts began discussions in March on follow-on measures to START, but the two sides are at odds over several core issues. Russia favors negotiating a new treaty that would reduce strategic nuclear warheads to less than 1,500 each, with additional limits on delivery systems. The Bush administration rejects further weapons limits and prefers new, informal transparency and confidence-building measures.

In response to Russia's concerns about possible strategic vulnerabilities, last year, Putin proposed that Washington and Moscow seek to multilateralize the 1987 US-Russian treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear forces. So far, the states that possess such missiles have not greeted the proposal with enthusiasm.

What should be done? Rather than allow the START to expire or mask long-simmering differences with halfway measures, Bush's and Putin's successors should agree to continue to observe START until they can enter into a new agreement that achieves what SORT did not: permanent and verifiable reductions of excess US and Russian Cold War nuclear forces. A new treaty with streamlined START-style verification protocols is necessary to restore confidence that each country will actually dismantle, not simply warehouse, warheads and missiles originally deployed to destroy the other.

Many nuclear analysts believe that such an agreement could map out permanent, phased reductions of all strategic nuclear warheads, deployed and reserve, to a level of 1,000 or less and establish ceilings on the number of non-nuclear strategic missiles, and open the way for negotiations with the world's other nuclear weapons possessors.

The two sides also need to avoid further tension over missile interceptors in Europe. Unfortunately, Bush and Putin will not likely resolve their differences and avert a collision on missile defense any time soon. Putin's offer to discuss alternative basing plans that would not interfere with Russian missiles is worth exploring. Nevertheless, the White House seems determined to begin construction of the European system before Bush leaves office.

Such an approach is mistaken. The United States and its NATO partners should defer work on the European strategic missile defense project until Bush's and Putin's successors arrive. In the meantime, they should engage Russia in a meaningful dialogue to address its missile defense concerns, explore technical alternatives, and advance new proposals for deeper warhead and missile force cuts that would reduce tensions and erase Russian fears of US nuclear supremacy."

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