CNS Feature Stories

Special articles and reports on timely nonproliferation issues by CNS staff.
Updated: Dec 22, 2010

New START Ratification: A Bittersweet Success

Senate ratification of New START aids strategic stability but issues raised during consideration and concessions made to win approval will challenge Obama's nonproliferation agenda and the next stage of nuclear arms reductions.
Authors: Nikolai Sokov, and Miles A. Pomper

Posted: December 22, 2010

The Senate's 71-26 vote to approve the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) will aid strategic stability and international disarmament, bolster President Barack Obama's international and domestic standing, and further contribute to the effort to "reset" US-Russian relations on a more constructive path. Nonetheless, the issues raised during its consideration, the concessions granted to win its approval, and the closeness and urgency of the vote, indicate the limits and nature of the arms control and disarmament opportunities that the Obama administration will be able to undertake in the final two years of the president's first term. Indeed, those opportunities will narrow even further next year when Republicans will hold five more seats in the Senate and a few of the minority of Republicans who supported the treaty will have retired. The result is that President Obama's effort to build a world free of nuclear weapons, announced with much fanfare in Prague less than two years ago, is likely to be sidetracked for the time being, if not shelved altogether.

One setback to that effort may have occurred even before senators cast their new vote on the treaty in the weapons complex. In seeking to win Republican support, Obama pledged to devote well over $180 billion over 10 years to the modernization and maintenance of the complex that manufactures US nuclear weapons and the missiles, bombers, and submarines that deliver them a sizable investment that may lead some states to question the sincerity of the administration's pursuit of nuclear disarmament.

The second casualty is likely to be US ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The United States is among a handful of countries that still must ratify this ban on nuclear weapons tests for it to enter into force. In his Prague speech, Obama had pledged to again seek Senate ratification of the treaty. In 1999, the Clinton administration had failed to convince a Republican-controlled Senate to muster the required two-thirds majority for approval. With the Republican minority growing and becoming even more ideological, the Obama administration is unlikely to want to tempt defeat again. Moreover, in agreeing to the modernization pledges as part of the New START ratification process, administration officials have already traded away what was seen as their potential trump card in any CTBT negotiation with Senate Republicans.

Finally , the conditions, understandings, and declarations attached to the treaty's resolution of ratification as well as proposed (if defeated) amendments to the treaty itself, indicate the pressure and limits Obama administration officials would have to operate within should they seek to carry out their desire for a more ambitious series of cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. New START in many ways merely retains the status quo. The reduction in nuclear weapons it entails is very modest—to 1,550 warheads from 2,200 in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty). The new treaty also does not solve any of the truly contentious issues that dominate the US-Russian arms control agenda—missile defense, conventional long-range weapons, uploading capability, nuclear weapons stockpiles, or non-strategic nuclear weapons, which negotiators have expressed a willingness to tackle, but which were postponed until the next stage. Essentially, the main purposes of New START are two: first, to restore the transparency and verification regime that expired with the expiration of START I in December 2009; and, second, to provide a stable and predictable environment for negotiating a new, more ambitious treaty. Given the modest goals of New START, the drama surrounding ratification in the United States is nothing short of perplexing and demonstrates that emotions and politics, rather than impassioned analysis, dominated debates.

The Senate Debate

The Senate debate and the resolution of ratification reflected Senate concerns about three issues in particular: Russian opposition to deployment of U.S. missile defenses, Russian concerns about US long-range conventional strike weapons and, and US concerns about Russia's non-strategic nuclear weapons. Particularly telling was the debate on half-a-dozen proposed Republican amendments to the treaty. Although most were defeated handily (requiring only the Democratic party to vote on party lines to do so) all attracted the support of 32 or more Republicans in the 100 member body and would no doubt have attracted more if their approval would not have meant renegotiating the treaty with Russia. That sends a cautionary message to the Obama administration about any future agreement that did not take these concerns into account since it would take "nay" votes from only 34 senators to defeat such a pact.

With Russia insisting that certain (undefined) options the United States could pursue with regard to missile defense might cause it to withdraw from New START, lawmakers were careful to make clear that the United States does not view the treaty as in any way limiting US plans. There is nothing new about this disagreement—the Soviet Union said the same in 1991 at the signing of START I, but unending arguments around missile defense had no impact on the implementation of that treaty. Yet, the push to eliminate language in the preamble indicating there is an (undefined) "interrelationship" between strategic offensive and defensive systems was only defeated after President Obama wrote to senators on December 18 pledging to fully deploy all available missile defense systems, including those against ICBMs.

Similarly, lawmakers chafed at the treaty's language on long-range conventional strike weapons. Russia has expressed concerns that these weapons—particularly if mounted on traditional nuclear platforms, such as ballistic missiles—could serve as first-strike weapons and endanger its second strike capability, or at the very least contribute to dangerous misunderstandings. Therefore, as a concession, the United States agreed to count any conventional systems it mounts on ballistic missiles within overall treaty limits. Lawmakers pushed to make clear that this concession would not prevent deployment of these systems, particularly those that are not launched from ballistic missiles. But a December 20, 2010 letter to senators from Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helped defeat a treaty amendment to that effect.

Also offered—and defeated—were several amendments dealing with non-strategic nuclear weapons, generally shorter-range weapons not covered by New START or any previous arms control pacts. Russia has vastly more of these weapons deployed than the United States: about 2,000 or more (the exact figure is classified) versus fewer than 180 U.S. weapons in Europe and about 1,100 total. Administration officials have said they intend to tackle this issue in next round of negotiations, but had to beat back several attempts to renegotiate the current treaty to account for them or to include into the text a formal commitment by Russia to put these weapons on the negotiating table in the future. Still, the resolution of ratification made clear the Senate's continued interest in the subject.

The Political Repercussions in Russia

The process and the outcome of the Senate's consideration of New START ratification in the United States will have major implications for the future of nuclear arms control and disarmament. It is now clear that arms control is fair game in domestic politics and is no longer controlled by the foreign policy elites in either party. The support of Republican heavyweights in national security affairs (including former presidents as well as secretaries of state and defense) for New START stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of acting senators from the same party. Regrettably, few lawmakers today appear to care about the substance of the issue simply because the bilateral US-Russian nuclear balance is no longer regarded as central to the security of the United States. Here one can expect the emergence of a gap between the prevailing attitude in the United States (especially in the Senate) and the views of US allies and Russia.

Ratification of New START by Russia is practically assured, given the Kremlin's control over the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament that plays a key role in ratification of international agreements (in particular, it has the right to make amendments while the upper chamber, the Federation Council, can only vote "yea" or "nay" on the draft adopted by the Duma). Yet, the Duma vote will now be delayed (originally it planned to "synchronize" its vote with the Senate) to give lawmakers time to adopt additional statements and understandings. In addition to the statement about the relationship between offensive and defense weapons, which reflects the official Russian position, a score of other statements will likely be adopted. These will closely mirror any documents Senate will attach to New START, but with the opposite intention. One obvious candidate is a statement on long-range conventional weapons: while the Senate provisions sought to ensure that the US ability to deploy the systems remain unaffected, Russian lawmakers are likely to treat the same deployment decisions as potentially disrupting the strategic balance between the two countries.

In Moscow, debates on New START will be central for the assessment of the prospects of the next stage of nuclear arms reductions. Contrary to the view often voiced in the Senate, Russian officials believe they made many vital concessions to obtain this treaty and they now have to decide whether these concessions were worth the result. While the negotiations themselves demonstrated that they can strike deals with the Obama administration, the Kremlin will, in all likelihood, begin to question the ability of the current White House to control outcomes in domestic politics.

The situation is further aggravated by the fact that the next stage of negotiations is likely to be more difficult and contentious than New START. On top of existing differences, which were amplified during the ratification process, new and equally or more contentious issues are likely to emerge, making ratification of the next treaty even more challenging. In the short term, the Kremlin will have to decide whether it is worth seeking an early new treaty and whether concessions necessary to achieve that are worth making. The upcoming 2012 presidential elections in Russia are an important variable in that decision, too: the verdict is still out on whether the "reset" policy with the United States was wise and has yielded any tangible benefits, or whether a more hard-line approach (which also appears more popular with the public, just as in the United States) will pay off on voting day.

Future Negotiations

It has become a consensus, at least in the United States, that the next treaty should make a transition from using delivery vehicles as the main treaty-limited item (TLI) to focusing on limiting the full stockpiles of nuclear warheads. To date, all treaties, including New START, have limited only deployed warheads, and even those only indirectly, through special accounting rules. This transition will be highly challenging: there is no precedent for limiting stockpiles; the new approach will necessitate the exchange of data that have not been previously exchanged, and the opening of facilities to inspection that have always been regarded as off limits. Thus, negotiating the next treaty will require considerable time and effort, and New START, with its ten-year term, provides the necessary conditions. Furthermore, it would be impossible to tackle such sensitive issues if the two countries remain suspicious of each other, and here the transparency and predictability provided by New START will be invaluable.

Transition from delivery vehicles to stockpiles will give a new meaning to the term nuclear disarmament. In the final analysis, the traditional approach was about limiting and reducing the first-strike capability of the United States and Russia (and the Soviet Union before it), without specifically addressing the nuclear weapons themselves. While both the United States and Russia have reduced their arsenals quite radically since the end of the Cold War, this reduction was conducted unilaterally and in a non-transparent fashion. It was only last May that the United States revealed the number of warheads it has stockpiled for strategic delivery vehicles (although not for non-strategic weapons) while Russia has yet to do the same.

Transparency of warheads was attempted during consultations on a proposed START III agreement the late 1990s—at that time, US negotiators proposed that the two parties exchange exhaustive current and historical information about their stockpiles, but Russia responded with a resolute "no" because it was more concerned about the number of deployed warheads and also because it regarded the volume of information requested by the Americans as tantamount to spying.

Similar challenges are likely to resurface, but chances are high that this time Russian response might be different. In the end, control of nuclear weapons stockpiles offers the only reliable method of addressing several key Russian concerns that could not be properly resolved in New START. Similarly, some existing US concerns could only be resolved by limits on warhead stockpiles, including:

  • Uploading capability— As it has done in the past, the United States plans to implement New START's reduction on the total permitted number of deployed warheads primarily by reducing the number of warheads on each delivery vehicle. In theory the United States could gain an advantage and a potential first-strike capability by suddenly deploying the maximum number of warheads on each vehicle. Some Russian military analysts even suggest that the United States could increase its deployed arsenal by as many as 2,000 warheads. Restrictions on the movement of non-deployed (stored) warheads could address this problem.
  • Conventional strategic assets— Increasingly, military officials envision long-range delivery vehicles being reequipped with conventional warheads, and old rules, according to which all nuclear-capable missiles and bombers should count against treaty limits, would no longer work in such circumstances. The United States is currently further along in this transition, but Russia has started to move in the same direction.In the future Washington is likely to be as concerned as Moscow is now about the challenge of how to deal with conventionally equipped delivery systems. As in the previous case, controlling the movement of non-deployed warheads seems the only means of ensuring a limit on the number of deployed warheads.
  • Non-strategic nuclear weapons—The Russian superiority in that class of nuclear weaponry has been a concern for the United States for two decades, but traditional approaches are simply inapplicable here because potential delivery vehicles are many and all are dual-capable. Any limitations and reductions must center on stockpiles of non-deployed warheads.

Negotiations are bound to be difficult and time-consuming. There is no precedent for establishing limits on stockpiles of non-deployed warheads. It is unclear whether and how such limits could be established given the differences in the operations and organization of the US and Russian nuclear weapons establishments and the significant imbalance in the number of stored non-strategic weapons. Verification would necessitate opening for inspection facilities that are still regarded among the most sensitive—weapons storage facilities and perhaps also warhead production and dismantlement facilities. The ten-year term of New START will allow adequate time for thorough consideration of these complicated issues.

Missile defense is bound to remain the most visible point of contention. On this issue positions remain diametrically opposed—the United States objects to any limits whatsoever while Russia seeks an arrangement similar to the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. While a permanent solution is therefore unlikely, this does not have to affect the outcome of arms reduction negotiations. Two conditions should help minimize damage from this issue—expanded cooperation on missile defense, especially in Europe, and greater predictability. In the end, Russia is not concerned about current US plans, but about the capabilities that the US system might obtain in the distant future. A step-by-step approach with a reasonable degree of transparency should help contain the more alarmist tendencies on both sides.

While the agenda for the next stage of talks seems reasonably clear, the process will be affected by the Russian analysis of the ratification of New START. It is difficult to get into the heads of decision-makers in Moscow, but it seems likely they will choose to mark time until the 2012 elections in the United States. They already know, from the experience of negotiating with George W. Bush administration and from the positions taken by the majority of Republican senators on New START, that negotiating with Republicans is probably not worth much effort because a Republican leadership is unlikely to reciprocate on Russian concessions. Thus, any deals made with the Obama administration will only stick if Obama is re-elected; Moscow does not want to be in a position of showing its hand only to have the next US administration pocket the concessions Russia has already made and then use those as the starting basis of talks.

The Obama administration, for its part, will probably be equally cautious to avoid making itself vulnerable to accusations of "selling the store" in the run-up to the 2012 election. Thus, it seems probable that serious talks are unlikely to begin until early 2013, although preliminary discussions of a very cautious nature could commence as early as next spring.

In the meantime, momentum could be maintained by pursuing cooperation and agreements in areas where Congress will not be involved or will be involved only minimally. Among these is missile defense—the Lisbon NATO and NATO-Russia summits have laid the foundation that could be built upon, and practical work on these issues could be pursued at the intergovernmental level. Also, the entry-into-force of the US-Russian bilateral nuclear energy cooperation agreement facilitates negotiating a range of deals in civilian nuclear energy cooperation; given strong Russian interest in that area, one can expect significant results. The traditional arms control agenda could be fruitfully pursued on unofficial or semi-official tracks to at least broadly chart possible agreements to use at future formal talks between the two governments.

It should be noted here that if New START ratification had proceeded faster and more smoothly, and if the treaty had been approved with 80-90 votes in favor, as has happened with nearly all previous nuclear arms control treaties, the prospects and timing for future discussions and agreements would have been much different. Perhaps this is what the Republican opponents of New START intended all along.

Related Items

New START and the Maintenance and Modernization of US Nuclear Weapons
Faced with senators who are skeptical of and even openly hostile to his nonproliferation and disarmament agenda, President Barack Obama went to unprecedented lengths to try and secure Republican support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).


Related Topics


Treaties/Regimes | Nuclear | Russia | United States | More Feature Stories
Return to Top