Why START is only a beginning on the long road to nuclear disarmament

Andrew Futter | sustainablesecurity.org | June 2010

Issue:Global militarisation

Why START is only a beginning on the long road to nuclear disarmament

Andrew Futter

The ‘New START’ Treaty signed by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on 8th April 2010 is an important first step in the renewed drive for nuclear disarmament, but its overall contribution towards the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons should not be overstated.  In many respects the treaty merely codifies the current status quo, and is arguably more about symbolism than it is about substance, and in this respect much of the hard work in reducing and potentially eliminating the vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons held by nations across the globe is still to be done.  Perhaps most importantly, before any meaningful multilateral talks and possible agreements on abolition can seriously begin, the US and Russia will need to go much further in reducing their nuclear ordinance.  Moreover, it will only be after US and Russian weapons stockpiles have been reduced to numbers in the low hundreds that the push for more widespread reductions, and possibly abolition, can seriously and credibly begin.  As such, and while many are aware of the problems of going from only a few nuclear weapons to zero, this article argues that many of the toughest problems are likely to come in the first phase of the disarmament process, a phase that will involve reducing US and Russian nuclear stockpiles down to numbers more in line with that of other nuclear weapons states.

The New START treaty is certainty important in a number of political, diplomatic and strategic ways.  First, it commits both the US and Russia to reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1550 and deployed delivery vehicles to 700 within seven years - representing a 65% reduction from the numbers contained in the original 1991 START treaty negotiation signed by George HW Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, and a 30% cut in numbers from the Moscow Treaty negotiated by former President’s George W Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2002.  Of equal importance is the fact that the treaty ensures the continued verification of both nations nuclear stockpiles (that had expired with the first START treaty in December 2009), which in turn allows for transparency in measuring both governments compliance with the new agreement as well as ensuring the security of each nation’s nuclear sites. This is particularly important in Russia.  On top of this and perhaps in many ways the most important part of the agreement is its political symbolism and significance, and more broadly its importance for US-Russian strategic dialogue, international cooperation and a predictable relationship.  Politically, the treaty cements previous work by the Obama administration to ‘reset relations’ with Russia and from the administration’s perspective, should help enlist Russian support with other US foreign policy objectives.  Diplomatically it establishes a link between the two sides from which to push on and attempt to negotiate further arms control agreements.  For Russia it is also an important chance to be involved in international policy at the highest levels as the country tries to mitigate its declining strategic world role.

Militarily however, the treaty really changes very little.  It is likely that regardless of the new agreement the US would have made further (possibly unilateral) reductions in its nuclear weapons stockpile – and indeed may continue to do so even if the Senate does not ratify the treaty in the coming months.  Moreover, it is likely that the US - through NATO - may choose to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, and possibly from other regions across the globe – especially in areas where ballistic missile defences are beginning to play a larger role in strategic deterrence.  On the Russian side the treaty essentially codifies the current state of the Russian nuclear arsenal, which after years of underfunding and neglect is now essentially in a state of disrepair.  It is therefore likely that despite the vast stockpiles of nuclear related material still in Russia, only a percentage of this nuclear ordinance is actually serviceable and usable.  When economic pressures in both countries – but particularly Russia - are added to this, much suggests that a renewed drive to service or embark on a large-scale plan to build new nuclear weapons by either nation is highly unlikely.

However, and whilst the provisions contained in START are important, and indeed mark a notable diplomatic achievement, far deeper cuts in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles will need to be made before any serious multilateral nuclear reductions can be contemplated.  However, because both strategic and political pressures will make further significant reductions in US and Russian stockpiles far harder to agree, it is arguably in this pre-nuclear abolition stage that most of the short-term problems with the disarmament agenda reside.  Fundamentally, without significant further US and Russian reductions - perhaps reducing warhead numbers to the low hundreds - it will be very difficult to multilateralise the push for disarmament and consequently begin making meaningful strides towards possible nuclear abolition.  Making things more completed is the fact that nothing in the recent START agreement prevents the modernization and testing of US or Russian warheads or delivery vehicles, or provides any official constraints on ballistic missiles defences.  Additionally the treaty does not include any reductions of the several thousand tactical nuclear weapons still deployed by both the US and Russia.  Moreover, and although President Obama has suggested that negotiating a tactical nuclear weapons treaty with Russia is a key priority, and despite rumours that US tactical weapons may be removed from Europe, continued and indeed increasing Russian reliance on these types of weapons will make the pursuit of such an agreement an arduous task.  What is more, because dismantling and destroying nuclear weapons takes a long time, and because both countries already have huge stocks of weapons awaiting destruction, the number of operationally inactive US and Russian stockpiled warheads will remain in the high thousands for many years to come.

The first big hurdle to further reductions is going to be the increasing political and strategic reliance by Russia its nuclear weapons complex.  Politically Russian leaders feel that the countries substantial nuclear weapons ordinance is one of the few things that allows it to retain ‘great power status’ and thus enables it to pursue a role at the forefront of global politics, whilst militarily, Russian nuclear weapons are gaining increased importance because of the declining size, capability and professionalism of Russian conventional forces.  As such, nuclear weapons are becoming more, not less, important components of Russian security thinking, and this suggests that further Russian agreements on nuclear reductions will be far harder than has been the case with START.  The second big hurdle will be overcoming the political and bureaucratic pressures in the US, where one of the biggest problems facing any administration will be how to gain acquiescence from hawkish members of Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff about where the cuts should be made, and how low stockpiles can go before the concept of a three part nuclear deterrence posture becomes unfeasible.  What is more, the continued spread of nuclear weapons and their proliferation and acquisition by so-called ‘rogue states’, added to Russian intransigence and general disinclination to disarm beyond a certain point, is also likely to make it far harder politically for any US President to push ahead with unilateral nuclear disarmament measures.  Strong criticism from many conservatives in Congress concerned about America’s ability to protect itself are equally likely to make reductions in nuclear weapons capabilities politically challenging, especially if – as in the current case – they are pursued by a Democrat President.  More broadly the rising price of energy is likely to see both nations expand their domestic civilian nuclear infrastructures, further entrenching a reliance on nuclear power, and providing both with a substantial ‘virtual’ weaponization capability.

Lastly, there is the issue of the offense-defence balance that has surrounded the nuclear arms race almost from its inception, and which since George W Bush’s abrogation of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, has become an even more important component of international stability.  Under the Bush administration, and now under Obama, the US ballistic missile defence programme has grown substantially and seems well on its way to becoming a ‘normalised’ component of security policy.  Moreover, and although questions remain over the technology being deployed, and regardless of the fact that the stated goal of the system is protection against a limited rogue state attack or accidental missile launch from an established nuclear power, and not in defeating a strategic strike by Russia, the expansion of the system has caused concern in Moscow.  Indeed, missile defence – particularly in Europe – was one of the main stumbling blocks that prevented the START agreement from being concluded far sooner.  Consequently, strategic logic suggests that the more the US and Russia reduce their nuclear arsenals the more important, and potentially destabilising, missile defences may become, thus creating something of a ‘disarmament paradox’.  Both nations, but particularly Russia (and subsequently China) will want to ensure they maintain a credible nuclear deterrent that can overcome any US (or NATO) missile defence system.  Moreover, the opposition to US missile defence plans remains a key way to garner domestic support and score rhetorical points for Russian leaders.

The New START agreement is an important first step on the road to nuclear disarmament but its actual relevance and importance in the larger quest for nuclear abolition should not be overstated.  This is because the US and Russia will need to go far further than the agreements reached in the current treaty before they can credibly begin calling on other smaller nuclear powers to eliminate their own nuclear stockpiles.  Although there will be pressures making further disarmament difficult in the United States, particularly for a Democrat President, it will be in Russia that the greatest stumbling blocks to this process will be found.  Growing Russian reliance on nuclear weapons, not just for security but also for political and diplomatic reasons, will make further substantial reductions in the Russia nuclear arsenal very difficult to achieve.  Moreover, such Russian intransigence, coupled with a potential growth in the number of states – many of them unstable or hostile – seeking to acquire nuclear weapons will make any unilateral disarmament moves by the US equally difficult to achieve.  Consequently, and while much attention is paid to the latter stages of the problem of how nuclear weapons can finally be abolished or how to deal with securing fissile material, we may in fact need to concentrate far more on the significant problems of US-Russian nuclear reductions that must necessarily precede this.

Andrew Futter is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham.

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