Nuclear Arms Control: Re-Starting the U.S.-Russian Engine

After a hiatus of almost a decade strategic arms control is back on the agenda of the two former superpowers and might lead to a fundamental realignment of U.S.-Russian relationship in the twenty-first century.

The first step towards this new rapprochement – as could have been expected – was taken by the Obama Administration in one of its first official acts after taking office: behind the backdrop of a steadily deteriorating political climate between Washington and Moscow, the newly elected U.S. President offered the Russians to push the symbolical reset button and restart bilateral talks on a variety of issues, especially in the field of nuclear arms control.

Not surprisingly this initiative was well received in the Russian capital and the Kremlin immediately signalled its interest to restart strategic talks on the long neglected field of offensive and defensive nuclear assets. For this policy field had been severely damaged by the former Bush Administration, because of its scepticism of arms control in general and its reluctance to accept any limitation on its military options in an era of “global war on terrorism.”

As a result the Bushites cancelled major arms control treaties, which were considered as central pillars of strategic stability for decades (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty), rejected other treaties, which were patiently being negotiated by their predecessors, out of hand (the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and watered down the central bilateral treaty on nuclear arms between the U.S. and Russia (the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START).

Concerning the latter, the Bush Administration planned to replace START with an informal agreement fixing some upper limits for deployed strategic warheads (the so-called Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, SORT) defining as a deadline for this limit the year 2012. Apart from the fact that SORT (unlike START) did not foresee any verification of these deployments at any time, the deadline implied that after 2012 both parties could re-deploy any number of warheads at their discretion. In short, SORT was the caricature of an arms control treaty, and at the same time a symbol for the policies of the last U.S. Administration: unilateral action in conjunction with total disregard for the requirements of other parties – SORT was heavily criticized by most international observers – and deep reservations against any measure, which could constrain American power projection.

Barack Obama’s serious attempt to reach out Moscow symbolizes the end of these visions of “full spectrum dominance” and a return to more sober policies vis-à-vis the other major powers. Hence, re-starting where Bush’s predecessors stopped was the logical consequence; and there was no time to lose in re-establishing the high-level bilateral talks, since the already mentioned START Treaty is due to expire on December 5, 2009. Without a follow-on agreement to START, from 2010 onwards the only arms control treaty covering the nuclear assets of the two former superpowers would have been SORT – with its known deficiencies.

Fortunately the two former superpowers were able to agree upon the necessity of a serious START follow-on treaty. Hence they began negotiations in July 2009. This restart was accompanied by a Joint Understanding signed by the two Presidents, Obama and Medvedev, which already sketched some basic principles of the new agreement: “Within seven years after this treaty comes into force, and in future, the limits for strategic delivery systems should be within the range of 500-1,100 units and for the warheads linked to them within the range of 1,500 and 1,650 units.”

Although the mere numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles contained in the Joint Understanding were not exciting – they are still in order of magnitude larger than the arsenals of the other nuclear Middle Powers, i.e. China, France and the United Kingdom – the preliminary agreement can still be viewed as a success for three reasons.

First, strategic arms control talks are back on the U.S.-Russian bilateral agenda: this means that both parties will work on an agreement, which will cut their deployed nuclear assets in a transparent, verifiable and irreversible way. This entails an increased level of confidence and of trust between the two formal rivals and opens up the possibility for further cuts in the respective arsenals. Fewer weapons automatically mean fewer risks of accidental launch or nuclear accidents and fewer access points for terrorists to the most deadly of all weapons. Therefore, re-engaging Russia in strategic arms control talks is a highly effective measure to reduce nuclear dangers in a sustainable manner.

Secondly, the very fact that an agreement to extend START (and to establish lower ceilings for warheads and delivery vehicles) was reached, can be viewed as a success. The political divide between Washington and Moscow on a number of strategic issues has widened dramatically over the last decade. The superpower divergence comprised of the future status of Kosovo, the ongoing NATO enlargement (including the recent overtures to Georgia and Ukraine), and – most importantly – the controversial U.S. plans to deploy strategic missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. In this light the Joint Understanding of the Russian and American president to seek progress in nuclear disarmament is remarkable.

Furthermore these divides show how Obama’s epochal project of a world without nuclear weapons (“Global Zero”) could unfold over the next decades. If the U.S. President has the courage to link nuclear disarmament with controversial strategic issues like America’s missile defence or Global Strike plans, Russia might be prepared to offer unthinkable cuts on its nuclear arsenal.

Thirdly, the revival of bilateral strategic talks between Washington and Moscow is bound to have a positive impact on the forthcoming Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010. After the failure of the last Review Conference in 2005, experts warned that the non-proliferation regime might not survive another fiasco and could induce a number of countries to reconsider their nuclear abstinence, if the established nuclear powers did not show a stronger commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament. In this light, the new Russian-American détente came just at the right time and augurs well for the difficult itinerary towards “Global Zero”.