December, 2009 (Oh START to Die?!) December 4, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
Tags: nuclear reductions, Nuclear Weapons, START Treaty
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is set to expire this Saturday, December 5th (technically the 4th at 7pm EST). It was signed in 1991 shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ratified a year later, and entered into force on December 5, 1994. Over the past 15 years it has brought the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to less than 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads on 1,600 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers). It also provided complex and intrusive verification procedures that allowed both sides to monitor the deployments and reductions of the other.
The Obama administration, however, has been unable to conclude a follow-on treaty to replace START (see this article). This may actually be good for U.S. national security. There has been rampant speculation over the past several months, especially after the Nobel award, that the U.S. would agree to essentially all Russian terms (low strategic delivery vehicle numbers, lax verification, and restrictive counting rules) in order to conclude an agreement by the 5th. With the expiration of START (and the possibility that the verification provisions will be observed until a new treaty is concluded), that deadline is removed (and despite the worries of the arms control community, life as we know it will continue to exist). The U.S. negotiating team can now operate from a stronger position and, if necessary, walk away if the Russians do not agree to their positions. Because the truth of the matter is that the Russians need this agreement more than the U.S. does. Their strategic forces are shrinking, and without a new arms control treaty they risk falling behind the U.S.
So what will the world look like in a few hours when START no longer limits U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals? Probably not a whole lot different than today. Neither country wants to (or can) spend the resources to build up their forces once the treaty-limits are gone. Also, the Moscow Treaty of 2002 remains in effect, which limits the number of operationally-deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 2,200. Though verification provisions will lapse (because they were provided by START), an executive agreement to maintain them until a new treaty is signed will be acceptable. In the end the quiet death of START should be an eye-opener for the administration. Without the need to work against a looming deadline, they should be able to focus on getting a START that enhances U.S. national security and doesn’t cede to Russia every major issue they have pushed for the last four decades.