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The U.S.-Russia Nuclear Thicket

Interviewee: Charles D. Ferguson, Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 20, 2009

CFR nuclear arms expert Charles D. Ferguson says the United States and Russia remain gripped in difficult talks over extending the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which expires on December 5. The two sides are attempting to reach a "bridging agreement" until the new treaty can be finalized, but the broader agreement is bedeviled by differences arising from both sides' threat perceptions, Ferguson says. "The United States says that it wants to move to deploying missile defenses, and it also wants to move to deploy advanced conventional capabilities to deal with threats of terrorists or other types of threats that may pop up suddenly," he says. "And that worries the Russians, because the Russians would say, 'Well you know, one man's missile defense system may look defensive to him, but to the opposite side, it looks like a potential offensive system.'"

It was forty years ago that the first strategic arms negotiations between the United States and Russia--then the Soviet Union--was launched in Helsinki. I covered that opening session, and if you had told me then that the two nations would be still negotiating about strategic arms reductions forty years later, I would have been astounded. What's the situation right now?

There's no surprise to many people who follow the issues that power politics is alive and well, and nuclear arms control talks certainly continue to put the Russians on a pedestal. These negotiations indicate that Russia is still a great power of sorts. Now, arguably, the United States is the only world superpower,  but Russia still commands respect in the nuclear area for sure, because it still has thousands of nuclear warheads, and we're talking about a deadly serious business.  But when we get down to figuring out what both sides can bear in terms of a negotiation, then we get all spun around on how to count warheads, how to verify that something's dismantled, how to factor in missile defense, how to factor in conventional capabilities that could pose a strategic threat. And those are just some of the major issues that negotiators are trying to work their way through with this looming deadline ahead of them in the next couple of weeks to extend the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

In 1991, George H. W. Bush signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). What did that do?

[T]he Russians want limitations on the U.S. missile defense deployments, and they want limitations on these advanced conventional warheads, which may have a capability against the Russian ICBMs.

It took us from an era from where you were in Helsinki forty years ago, covering the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, which resulted in what was called the Interim Agreement on Limitation of Strategic Arms (pdf)--just trying to limit the arms race, or limit the growth of the arsenals--to actually reducing the strategic arsenals in both Russia and the United States. So that was a major innovation, and it also heralded the end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union, and a new era in which both countries agreed to slash their arsenals pretty much in half, at least their strategic arsenals in half-it didn't really deal with the so-called "non-strategic warheads."

And it knocked it down to six thousand?

That's right, the START treaty knocked it down to roughly six thousand strategic warheads [from approximately ten thousand] on each side.

Did it limit the delivery systems also?

It did. And that's also now a bone of contention with this new START agreement they're trying to negotiate-whether we could further reduce the number of delivery systems. It still kept the basic triad structure in both countries-"triad" meaning you have submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), you have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and you have strategic bombers.  That's still in place. And there's no real push to remove one of those legs.

And what happened in 2001?

The George W. Bush administration said that it wanted to leave the ABM treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was sort of a protocol to the first SALT agreement, which was signed in 1972 by President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, the culmination of the talks which began in 1969 in Helsinki.

The ABM treaty limited each side to what?

[To] one place where you could place a certain number of anti-missile interceptors. The Russians decided to protect Moscow, their capital, and we decided to protect an ICBM field; so we wanted to protect our offensive missiles, and the Russians wanted to protect their capital.

But then we took down that field anyway right, in 1975?

Exactly, and the Russians kept up their anti-ballistic system around Moscow, and we don't really know its effectiveness, but they have some type of anti-missile system.

So we got out of it, even though we didn't have any system anyway.

That's right. George Bush had said during the campaign in 2000 that he wanted to move aggressively forward in deploying a national missile defense system, and he felt the ABM treaty was too binding.

But there was another agreement that the U.S. signed in the Bush administration?

After saying it was leaving the ABM treaty, the Bush administration felt that it needed to give the Russians something, and it was really no more than two pages long. It cited the START treaty, and said that, "We will use the verification framework in that treaty as the guidance for this new interim treaty." And the new treaty was known as the Treaty of Moscow, or the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), and it would expire on the end of 2012.  So we have this interesting interim period that we're now getting into, because START will expire on December 5 of this year, and if that expires and there's no successor treaty then we will have no verification procedures in place through the end of the SORT Treaty, which will expire in 2012. So what the negotiators are trying to do is find a bridging mechanism to at least preserve the verification measures that are inherent within START.

Didn't U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev outline some goals for renewing the START treaty?

In July they agreed on an outline of the follow-on treaty to START, and it says that there will be new limits on the number of strategic delivery vehicles--there would be a lower limit of five hundred to an upper limit of 1,100.  The understanding was that Russians would eventually drop down to the low level, five hundred, because of the retirement of a lot of their missiles, and the United States would be able to stay up to the upper limit of 1,100 due to the distribution of the forces within our triad. As to the warheads themselves, there are new limits--a lower limit of 1,500 deployed strategic warheads which goes upwards of 1,675 deployed strategic warheads. And this is a change from what President George W. Bush negotiated with President Putin, the SORT Treaty had limits of 1,700 to 2,200.

Since  it's so unlikely that either Russia or the United States are going to launch a nuclear war against each other, why don't we just get rid of all these warheads.

[W]e get all spun around on how to count warheads, how to verify that something's dismantled, how to factor in missile defense, how to factor in conventional capabilities that could pose a strategic threat.

The question is: Who are we targeting these warheads against? We're targeting them at each other, but as you said, the Cold War is over; we're trying to have a new relationship with Russia, so why can't we really agree to further reductions? The Russians would say, "Well look, we have to worry not just about potential renewed hostilities in the United States in the future, hopefully that's not going to happen, but we have to worry about China." China has a relatively small nuclear arsenal, and it appears to be gradually increasing its nuclear arsenal and modernizing its capabilities. The Russians say that they also have to factor in the British and French, who still have nuclear arsenals. So the Russians say, "Well look, we have a number of potential enemies, or at least rivals that we have to factor in, in terms of our nuclear forces."

And what does the United States say?

The United States says that it wants to move to deploying missile defenses, and it also wants to move to deploy advanced conventional capabilities to deal with threats of terrorists or other types of threats that may pop up suddenly, and we need a prompt global strike capability. And that worries the Russians, because the Russians would say, "Well you know, one man's missile defense system may look defensive to him, but to the opposite side, it looks like a potential offensive system, a shield that could actually shoot down some of the Russian nuclear warheads." So the Russians want limitations on the U.S. missile defense deployments, and they want limitations on these advanced conventional warheads, which may have a capability against the Russian ICBMs.

Is there a likelihood they're going to get a new START agreement by December 5?

We can make a sure bet, and we won't lose our money, that this new agreement certainly will not go into effect. It won't be ratified. There is just no way that the U.S. Senate is going to be able to ratify it that quickly. You need sixty-seven senators. So the Democrats have pretty much guaranteed sixty votes on their side. Let's assume the Democrats remain united, you'd still need at least seven Republicans. And really to get added comfort that this is truly a bipartisan effort, the Obama administration would like to get even more Republicans. In order to do that, it's going to take time. It's going to take a lot of education, and it's also going to take some compromise, to be frank. The Republicans have made it clear that they want to ensure that the U.S. arsenal has adequate resources, that it remains safe, secure, and reliable. And that's the price that's going to have to be paid, and President Obama understands that. If you go back to his Prague speech, he always says in those speeches that he supports a nuclear weapons-free world, but until we get to that stage, we have to make sure that the U.S. has a strong deterrent.

Summing up?

As we approach this START deadline, there are two instruments in play right now. One instrument is a bridging agreement, trying to extend the verification principles that both sides want to preserve, and we see bipartisan support for that. Senator Richard Lugar, R-IN, who is the minority leader in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently proposed legislation to put in place a verification mechanism-inspections on both sides, so that each side is confident that the basis of START is preserved, even if a new treaty is not completed.

Right now,  there's a START committee where the Russians and Americans meet regularly and exchange information and have confidence that each side is holding up its side of the agreement. But that can go away if we don't have that bridging agreement in place by December 5.  So it's absolutely essential to get the bridging agreement in place, and it could take a number of forms. It could be an executive agreement between the two presidents; it could involve the Senate, through Senator Lugar's efforts; and it could just be a natural extension of START. The treaty itself allows for a five-year automatic extension if both countries agree to do that.

Why not just invoke the extension?

The worry is that if they invoke that, then the pressure might be off to conclude the second instrument, which is the follow-on treaty to pursue deeper reductions. And the worry is that Obama would lose momentum because he's counting on this follow-on agreement to get these reductions in place so he can go to the U.S.-sponsored global nuclear security conference in Washington next April and to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference next May in New York, and other conferences, and [can] say to other countries, "the United States and Russia are living up to their commitments to disarmament."

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