A classified State Department report, which according to the Washington Times plays down the implications of any Russian non-compliance with the so-called New START treaty, has caused some US senators to question the purpose of the new strategic nuclear arms pact between the two countries. In what has become a strenuous ratification process, US lawmakers have been battling over the adoption of what could become a symbolic policy victory for the Obama administration in the approach to mid-term elections in November. Although the treaty has received strong bipartisan support, it has come under intense scrutiny from a number of lawmakers who have questioned the wisdom of voluntarily limiting US strategic nuclear warheads.
Two weeks ago, a number of Republican senators requested the provision of State Department reports on Russian compliance to the previous strategic arms pact, START I, which expired last December. According to these senators, a previous compliance report ‘highlighted a number of direct violations of START I by the Russians’ (a claim that Russia strongly denies) and therefore access to further compliance reports will inform the debate over the ratification of the New START deal. In anticipation of these compliance reports, which are expected to contain further unresolved non-compliance issues, the State Department has circulated a report to Congress that attempts to play down the impact that potential Russian non-compliance with the new treaty would have on US security.
The report argues that the large US warhead reserve will allow for a swift ‘upload capacity’ in the event of threatening Russian non-compliance, and that the accompanying verification regime will expose non-compliance to political and financial consequences that would far outweigh any potential gains from non-compliance. Quoted in The Washington Times, the report states that the potential benefits to Russia from cheating or abandoning the treaty ‘would appear to be questionable’. It adds that ‘in addition to the financial and international political costs of such an action, any Russian leader considering cheating or breakout from the new START Treaty would have to consider that the United States will retain the ability to ‘upload’ large numbers of additional nuclear warheads on both bombers and missiles under new START, which would provide the ability for a timely and very significant US response’. The Pentagon backed up these views to the Senate Armed Services Committee, arguing that ‘Russian cheating under the treaty would have little effect on the assured second-strike capabilities of US strategic forces.’
Whilst reassuring some, these views have caused other senators to realign their opposition to the treaty around a new perceived flaw. Namely, that if it doesn’t matter whether Russia abides by the treaty or not, what is the point of the treaty in the first place? Senator John McCain, one of the senators requesting access to START I compliance reports, asked a leading general ‘if it doesn’t have any consequences if [Russia] do any cheating, what’s the point in having a treaty?’ He went on to say that if cheating has little or no effect, ‘then we’ve been wasting a lot of time and money on negotiations’.
Although this view has been supported by other senators, including the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Christopher Bond, many other senators see huge value in the treaty, even if Russian non-compliance is of little concern. Senator Richard Lugar, a longstanding arms control advocate and leader of the Democrat’s push for ratification, argued in a recent interview in The National Journal, that the act of engagement with Russia, working together to negotiate and implement mutually-beneficial agreements, can build a level of trust that can lead to ‘breakthroughs that are even more dramatic than anything contemplated in a particular treaty’. And it is important to remember that treaty verification serves to do more than simply identify and deter non-compliance. By agreeing to a system of mutual reporting and inspection, verification procedures create a level of openness and transparency that would not likely exist without the overarching treaty framework. Without the confidence produced by this transparency, it is far too easy for decision-makers to become susceptible to fears and suspicions, leading to the ‘worst-case-scenario’ judgements that can result in costly arms races, and even war. As stated in the State Department report, the new pact will allow an ‘improved understanding’ of Russian nuclear forces.
In this case, the real issue that senators should be concerned about is whether or not the verification system in the New START treaty is strong enough to produce valuable results. There are many within the Senate who are concerned that this may not be the case, despite reassurances from the military, other senators, and independent experts. In particular, Senator Bond has called for the ratification process to be delayed, probably until after the approaching elections, to allow for a thorough consideration of the verification system. But as argued by Senator John Kerry, lawmakers have already received a national intelligence estimate which demonstrates ‘the consensus of the 16 intelligence agencies in the US government on the United States’s ability to monitor Russia’s compliance with the agreement’.
Hugh Chalmers, London
Sources: ‘Russian cheating on START is insignificant’, 20th July 2010