President Medvedev and President Obama will sign the new START agreement in Prague on April 8. The arms control treaty reduces the two powers’ deployed nuclear arms and could possibly signal progress in Obama’s goal of moving towards a world without nuclear weapons and strengthening ties between Russia and the United States.

In a new video Q&A, Alexei Arbatov analyzes the new START, evaluates the U.S.-Russia reset, and outlines what needs to happen for the treaty to be ratified. Arbatov says that the leaders of both countries need to emphasize their common interest in nuclear disarmament and make the ratification process another step in the positive resetting of relations rather than allowing a wave of mutual recriminations, suspicions, and accusations to undercut progress.

Also, watch Matthew Rojansky’s view from Washington on the new START.

What’s the history of the new START treaty?

The unique characteristic of the present situation and also the great importance of the new treaty is determined by the fact that—in contrast to what most people would think—we have not had a strategic arms control treaty for 20 years.

U.S. vs. Russian Nuclear Stockpiles 1945-2010

How to use:
Press play to start the timeline
Hover over a dot to see a country name
Click on a dot to follow a country over time
Data from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists

The last treaty that was signed, ratified and duly implemented was the START I treaty, which was signed in 1991 and expired last year in December. There were attempts to have new, more radical treaties—START II, START III in the 1990s, Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty in 2002—but none of those were duly ratified or implemented.

This had very bad consequences because the START I treaty was a great treaty in its own time, and it continued for the 20 year period after the end of the Cold War during which time we could have had much more radical agreements since the Cold War was no longer with us.

START I was elaborated during the final period of the Cold War and certainly reflected huge arsenals at that time, which numbered, all together for the Soviet Union and the United States, around 22,000 nuclear warheads. START I implied certain reductions, but still from high levels.

 And the strategic professional communities that existed both in the Soviet Union and the United States during the 20 year interval started to dissolve, disappear, and disintegrate. When I talk about strategic communities I talk about public interest, professional communities in think tanks, in professional mass media, which started to lose interest in strategic arms control. And also professional diplomats, military engineers, experts on the economics of strategic weapons, experts on the previous history of negotiations.

 All that was almost completely lost by the time President Obama and President Medvedev assumed office and decided to continue the process of a legally binding strategic arms reduction talks and agreements.
From this point of view, [the signing of the new START] is a great event because we are coming back on track. In particular, the detrimental effect was done by the eight years of the Republican administration, which took the position that we no longer need arms reduction treaties after the end of Cold War because we are not enemies any longer and we don’t need to negotiate strategic arms reductions.

So by the end of that administration, we had really no new arms control treaties and we almost became enemies once again. So the experience proved the total fallacy of that position. And we are now trying to restore the consistent framework of our arms control cooperation and interaction designed to bring us away from a mutual assured destruction type of relationship.



How significant is the new nuclear arms deal between Russia and the United States?

By sheer numbers this deal may not be as impressive as previous treaties. START I envisioned, during the seven year implementation time, the elimination of 4,000 to 6,000 nuclear warheads for each side, which means all together almost 10,000 nuclear warheads and 500 to 600 missiles and bombers. 

The new treaty does not envision such radical reductions. The reduction in warhead numbers will be about 30 percent and in actual numbers will be a few hundred. Reduction in delivery systems will be less big.

However, START I expired and START I started from much higher levels. The new treaty departs from these lower levels. In spite of their failure to agree to new treaties after START I expired, both sides, in parallel and unilaterally, went with a gradual reduction of their strategic forces.

In contrast to START I (which departed from very high levels, 10,000 nuclear warheads for the Soviet Union, 12,000 warheads for Russia down to 6,000 warheads which was the ceiling for START I) the new START, which is the replacement START which will replace START I that expired last year in December, departs from levels of about 2200 and 2300 warheads for each of the two sides and brings the level down to about 1500 warheads. The number of delivery vehicles—missiles, bombers—will be brought down to 700-800 for each side which will be a reduction of 100 or less.

The sheer magnitude of the weapons to be destroyed is less impressive than that of START I, but the departing point is much lower. I personally think that both sides should go deeper than that, but taking into account that a lot of time was lost, that strategic communities disintegrated in both countries, we had to start anew, to organize from scratch new groups of people who would professionally deal with new treaty, and the very compressed time schedule, the new treaty might be considered quite an impressive and important achievement.

START I took three years of intensive, round the clock negotiations. And if you take into account preliminary consultations which started before that, then I would say 10 years of negotiations to achieve START I.  

And here the new treaty was achieved in less than one year. The intensive negotiations with delegations in Geneva only continued for a few months. So it’s a great achievement if you take into account the enormous complexity of such treaties.

Just to give you an illustration, START I occupies 500 pages of small, print text. If you include the treaty and all the protocols and additional documents—which are actually more important than the treaty itself. The treaty covers the general framework but the devil is in the details and all those additional articles explain what is meant by the articles and definitions. So that’s a very complicated thing, extremely technical in its nature. 

[The new START agreement] was a great achievement of both negotiating teams headed by Carnegie alumni Rose Gottemoeller and by a young and bright diplomat Anatoly Antonov, the head of the department of foreign ministry, which is responsible for negotiations and treaties. A lot of tribute should be paid to their successful effort.


Will the treaty impact Russia’s national security?

Well in Russia, there will be a very strong opposition against the new treaty. That is easily predictable. The campaign against the new treaty has already started. No one has seen the treaty, but many people in the professional community—military civilian experts on strategy, arms control, weapon systems—have a lot of information about what has been going on in Geneva.

Interestingly enough, in Russia, all of a sudden during recent months, a very aggressive campaign was launched against the START I treaty which expired last year. One would think that this is ridiculous—the treaty served for 20 years and expired, and all of sudden, there is campaign against virtually a dead treaty? The fact is, this is the first solvable in the forthcoming, very strong campaign against the new START treaty. The departing point or assumption of the critics is that the previous treaty was detrimental to Russian security and the new treaty, which contains much more concessions of Russia to the United States, will be still more detrimental.

There are several points on which the opposition will target their most aggressive attacks. One is ballistic missile defense. There is no certainty in Russia about the future prospects for American ballistic missile defense. The new treaty, in mentioning the interaction of offensive and defense arms, in no way legally limits the United States in their development of various ballistic missile defense systems. So Russia’s agreement to go for a much lower level of strategic defensive forces would make the Russian deterrent less credible because American ballistic missile defense in the future can, or would be able to, degrade Russian second strike retaliatory capability—which is a basis for nuclear deterrence, and national security, for both sides.

The second point of criticism would be that the new counting rules discount a lot of weapons systems that could really add to the American strategic offensive nuclear power. First of all, in contrast to START I which counted each bomber as one delivery system carrying ten or more warheads, (depending on whether that was a bomber with cruise missiles, and the different number of cruise missiles). The new treaty apparently counts each bomber as one delivery system, and one warhead. So it would easily fit under the ceiling of 1550 and 700. However, in fact, each bomber does not carry one nuclear weapon, but may carry ten, or fourteen, or even twenty cruise missiles and gravity bombs. That would be another point of criticism.

According to the new treaty, only nuclear warheads actually deployed on missiles would be counted, rather than the maximum number of missiles it can carry according to its previous tests. The United States is planning to reduce the number of warheads partially through removing some warheads from missile nose cones and leaving other warheads, and removing these warheads to storage facilities. Nobody knows what would happen with the warheads afterwards. And in arms control, we’ve never been able to agree on actual warhead elimination. They were just taken off from delivery systems and stored. But in the past, main delivery systems were dismantled, so who cared about warheads, there was no way to return them back. With the new treaty, it may be different. For instance Trident, the submarine based ballistic missile, can carry eight warheads and was tested with 8 warheads for each missile. In order to fit under the 1550 ceiling on warheads, the United States was permitted to remove from each missile four or five or six warheads, or even seven warheads—whatever they decide—and to leave a missile with two or three warheads, and count this missile as carrying two or three warheads. And Russian inspectors would be able to come and really count them from time to time.

However, the United States would acquire, in this way, a substantial upload capability. That is if sometime the United States decided to withdraw from the new START treaty—like they withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002—they would be able to return warheads from storage back to missiles, and this way, in a relatively short period of time, several months at most, they would be able to build up their strategic arsenal by several thousand warheads. And this relates not only to Trident sea based nuclear missiles, but also to Minute Man III land based nuclear missiles, which can carry three warheads but many of them would be changed to carry one or two warheads. So that is a Russian concern.

Russian strategic forces are different from the United States. We cannot support present force for another ten years. The United States can easily support it for another ten or even 20 years. Russian systems become obsolete. They are withdrawn in massive numbers. Every year we withdraw hundreds of missiles and the new ones that are being introduced are being introduced at a very slow rate. Those that are being withdrawn were introduced in the 80s and 90s of the previous century. In particular, in the 80s they were deployed in huge numbers at very high rates to help Russia build up its forces very quickly to match United States build-up at that time, which was the time of the Cold War.

But now Russia is paying for that now because the rate at which they were introduced, which is the rate they are becoming physically and technically obsolete and cannot be maintained safely in service any longer. After several extensions of service lifetimes of those missiles, finally they have to be withdrawn. But the new ones are introduced at very small numbers. For instance, last year Russia introduced only twelve strategic missiles, both land-based and sea-based. So like in a classic school textbook example, the swimming pool in which water goes out by one tube and comes in by another tube, you can imagine what is happening with Russia’s strategic forces. Water is going out through a very wide tube, but coming in at a very tiny trickle through a narrow tube. So the level of the water goes down very quickly.

The new systems Russia is introducing are being introduced with the maximum number of warheads the systems can carry. Some of the new missiles carry one warhead, others carry three, still others carry four or six, but since there will be very few of those missiles introduced each year, the overall number of warheads will be lower, much lower, than the present number. And there will be no space on those missiles to build up those forces, even though Russia will remove a lot of warheads from the missiles that are being dismantled that are obsolete. Those warheads will be put in storage, but there will be no way to return them because the new ones will be introduced in small numbers and will be carrying the maximum number of warheads they can carry. So in Russia, there is a big disparity in this build-up capacity.

Russians in principle—Russian people and Russian political community—do not trust Americans, in particular after the United States withdrew from the ABM treaty. The United States did not violate the ABM treaty. It has the right to withdraw, but for Russia it was a shock. It was the first time that a superpower withdrew from an arms control treaty. So many Russian in the political elite and mass media do not trust Americans. Russian professionals trust Americans. They do not think that Americans would cheat and would tacitly deploy warheads back from storage to missiles. But they are afraid that at some point, for some reason, American would formally withdraw, yet again, from the new START treaty. Every treaty of this type has a special article provision that permits each party to the treaty to withdraw with certain advance warning in case extraordinary events make provisions of the treaty incompatible with extreme interests of national security.

That is a standard formula that was there always, in all the preceding treaties, and will be in the new one. In that case, it would take Russia many years to mobilize its industrial capacity and build up its forces because building up submarines and bombers missiles is a very expensive and long enterprise. But returning warheads from storage to missiles is very different. And Americans would acquire superiority, double or triple superiority. That is what Russians are concerned about.

What kind of event could trigger such an American reaction? For instance, if China embarks on a kind of crash missile build-up. China can easily—if it takes the political decision to do so, in ten years—China could easily deploy as much as one thousand nuclear warheads on its strategic missiles. Presently their strategic missile force counts only several dozen nuclear warheads. But China’s industrial capacity and its big defense budget may permit China to, very quickly, deploy new ground mobile missiles with multiple warheads, and reach a very high level of their strategic forces.

Many Russian experts believe this is the principal reason why the United States insists on retaining this upload capability, as with China it is very uncertain. China doesn’t provide any information on its existing forces, or its future forces and you can only guess. But it is not excluded that for some reason, China might embark on a crash missile build-up. But for Russia, things might not be easier, even if for good reason the Americans withdraw from the treaty because Russia would face a double danger—one from China and one from the United States—and that is a matter for serious concern.

And the last point of criticism which will be easily predictable will be that another part of the reductions in the United States will be implemented through converting some strategic nuclear weapons into strategic long range nuclear conventional weapons, which is missiles that carry conventional rather than nuclear warheads, but with precision guidance systems. In particular, relying on space intelligence navigation and targeting.

And for Russia that presents a danger which is considered now to be a growing new danger. Expansion of American conventional, long range, precision-guided systems that could theoretically deliver a disarming strike on Russian command and control targets—strategic weapons target, with precision guided systems including with silo based missiles, mobile based missiles, and submarines at base, and bombers at airfields—without actually nuclear weapons. Which would put Russia against a terrible dilemma: to respond with surviving nuclear forces, and invite nuclear retaliation from the American nuclear strategic force, or to recognize defeat and do nothing and let American disarm it with conventional counterforce strike.

Counterforce is a term used to describe a strike which is delivered against strategic forces against the other side, to disarm it. Of course it’s very hypothetical and very few Russians—even on the conservative side of the Russian strategic community—very few believe that this is a real threat, that Americans might really go for it, but the very fact that American would have such capability may very negatively affect Russian security. They are afraid Americans would conduct their policies from a position of strength, of pressure, towards Russia, and try to extract additional concessions from Russia in international affairs. And Russia would feel very vulnerable and would be willing to go for these concessions. And the new treaty does not really take this into account.


Why did negotiations last longer than originally anticipated?

In principle two main reasons. One is that we could not submit a treaty without the predominant technical part being ready, and as I mentioned, the devil is always in the details.

You can say this particular ceiling, 1550, for nuclear warheads, but then in order to understand what the ceiling means, you have to agree on how many warheads are counted for each type of missile, how many for each type of platform—that’s submarine, what about non-deployed missiles, what about non-deployed launches. When are those missiles to be counted? Because strategic weapons leave a very long cycle of life, research development testing, and manufacturing, they enter service, then they go out of service, and you have to be very particular and decide at what point in the launcher construction, in the missile construction, at what point this weapon is included under the ceiling. And you have to decide whether its included with existing warheads or whether its counted with the maximum number it was tested with or what it can carry and how you verify this maximum number in which way. Here’s the telemetry dispute, that everyone now knows this term, here’s how it comes into the play.

And also, when you discount this weapon, what has to be done with the launcher, the delivery system, and the warhead to take it out of the list and not considered any longer. I’m making all this points just to illustrate how technically complicated this thing is.

As far as we know, even by the time of singing of the treaty, not all technical documents will be finished, in particular on inspections. Because when both sides agree on inspections, they have to agree on the very tiny details—including how may people come to inspect this base or this missile, what kind of equipment they are permitted to carry with themselves, how close they are permitted to come to observe the particular missiles, what kind of shelter may be used to protect secret parts of the warhead and still permit inspectors to count the number of warheads.

All these tiny details are to be included—and for how many days they come, how many days in advance they appeal for the right to come for inspection, how many times of year—and so on and so forth. Some people joke that even the type of food and drink they can carry with themselves is to be included in those technical documents.

So finalizing that part will still take some additional time but it will not require any political solution, it’s purely technical. With respect to the bulk of the treaty itself, the text of the treaty, the principal definitions, the principal common understanding, that will be ready by the time of signing of the treaty. However it took more time than originally understood. That is why the two sides were not ready to present all the documents by December 5, 2009, when START I expired. And it is good that they were not in a rush because they could commit a lot of mistakes if rushing to finalize everything by a certain date, and that would become target for opposition during ratification both in the US Senate and the Russian parliament. And what could be worse for the negotiators, and for the executive leaders, than to be accused that for the sake of the symbolic goal of signing the treaty on the date of the expiration, that they committed a lot of technical mistakes that could create doubt on the treaty as a whole. That was understandable.

But the second problem was that both sides still disagree on some important political issues. And that is the interaction between strategic offensive weapon reduction and ballistic missile defense. Russia is concerned about America’s ballistic defense program. Russia insisted in the treaty on referring to this problem. Russia would like to see a much more tangible commitment from the United States to limit its ballistic missile defense program, or to consult with Russia and do a joint defense program so that Russia is not concerned about its strategic deterrent capabilities.

And that kind of disagreement persisted and probably prolonged the technical work, because otherwise political leaders could tell their diplomats and technical experts to be finished by a certain date. Maybe not December 5 but maybe a month in addition to the time required for the negotiation. However this major disagreement persisted and the Americans declared plans for deployment of theater ballistic missile defense in Romania and on ships. This created yet another wave of concern in Russia. The wave went down after President Obama’s decision to cancel the plan for early deployment of the strategic ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and the big ballistic missile defense radar in Czecha, but then with other programs, with other plans, the concern came back to Russia.

So Russian leaders did not give this directive to their negotiators to work around the clock and be finished sooner because political bargaining on ballistic missile defense and the way it should be mentioned in the treaty went on for a long time.

And the American side was willing to show that it will not compromise on some principles, and since it is a treaty on offensive strategic arms, the American side considered it sufficient to agree to just mentioning there exists interaction between offensive and defensive weapon systems, which logically should be taken into account with further negotiations whenever further reductions are being discussed. So it probably prolonged the work initially because both sides were engaged in some political maneuverings and they weren’t rushing their negotiators in Geneva to do the job sooner. But eventually, apparently both sides came to realize the compromise was sufficient and was acceptable to both sides, and the work was finished.


What does the treaty mean for the U.S.-Russian relationship? What is the status of the U.S.-Russia reset?

Certainly the fact that the two sides were able—in such a short time, less than a year—to elaborate a very complicated, new document, essential to the core of their national security, is a very good sign. That there is a real intention to go for a reset of the relationship. And the fact that it will be signed in Prague clearly will be very important. But it will not be the last step in resetting our relations. Rather it will be the first step.

And after that, a lot will depend on how ratification goes on, how strong and argumentative and tough the position of the executive branch in both countries meets the attacks of the opposition. A lot will depend on whether the debates will serve to prove that Russia and the US have very important common interest in nuclear disarmament that would permit both countries to cooperate more effectively on fighting national terrorism and nuclear proliferation in the world. Or whether such debates go on and on and on and on and turn into a killing ground for Russian- American relations. That also cannot be excluded and is very important.

So I would appeal to both presidents, and to both the vice president in the United States and prime minister in Russia, to keep it under very close control, and not to get distracted by other things, because this story has not ended, it only starts. Because it is very important for them to invest maximum political resources and efforts and time, and make all their subordinates in the executive branch do the same, in order to make the ratification process another step in the positive resetting of our relations rather than a period of undercutting of our relations and creating another wave of mutual recriminations and suspicions and criticism and accusations. It is very important that the leaders of the two countries do not think this is over.    


What’s next? What is needed for the treaty to be ratified?

In Russia we are facing big debates and certainly in contrast to the Senate in the United States, the ruling party in Russia, called United Russia, commands a majority in both chambers of parliament. And in Russia, we ratify treaties by simple majority. But whether the ruling party will vote in favor will largely depend on the debates.

And not only because the party will follow the debate but also because President Putin, who is the political leader of the ruling party as prime minister, will also follow the debates, and if the debates are very sharp and attacks on the new treaty are very aggressive and determine public opinion, Putin may hesitate to give the directive to the ruling party to vote for ratification.

Nobody knows whether Putin will run again for the presidency in year 2012, but if he plans to do that, I think he would give serious consideration to whether going against overwhelming public opinion on this particular, most important, foreign policy issue would be conducive to his campaign and presidential elections in 2012. So in Russia the situation is much more different than the United States. I would say the situation is a very typical Russian situation—it is not formal opposition, loyal party, party of the president, number of votes you have to collect. In Russia it is more complicated. But nonetheless, the debate in Russia will be no less severe than the United States.