A New START: Changes in US-Russian Arms Control

In Amy Woolf’s report on Monitoring and Verification in Arms Control for the Congressional Research Service, Woolf analyzes the strategies behind monitoring and verification before doing a deep dive on the START (Strategic Offensive Arms Reductions Treaty) treaty to compare the differences between the new treaty that went into effect in 2011 and the START treaty that preceded it, from 1991.

One of the major aspects of the relationship between the two countries is the exchange of information so that each party can monitor the other. Both the United States and Russia use national technical means of verification (NTMs) including satellites, radar, and electronic surveillance to gain information about the others’ capabilities, but the treaty provides for data exchanges that provide even more information and create an atmosphere of transparency and understanding. In the 1991 START, one of the main aspects of this data exchange was the exchange of broadcast transmissions from missile tests. Analysts agreed that analyzing this data gave them a better understanding of the capabilities of both sides missiles, providing information about the weight, length of time fuel burned, and the number of times reentry vehicles were released that would have contained nuclear warheads. In the negotiations for the 2011 treaty, Russia pushed back on these provisions, arguing that it created an unequal obligation because they were developing new missiles, while the US was only occasional testing older missiles. Eventually, an agreement was reached that they would exchange information on an equal number of launches, but no more than 5 launches, in a calendar year. In the original treaty, both sides had uncertainty about the number and capabilities of the others’ arsenal, but after 15 years of monitoring, both now have a better understanding of the number and capabilities, making this somewhat less important.

In terms of verification, the 1991 treaty came at a time when many Americans believed that the Soviet Union could have incentives to violate the verification aspects of the treaty to gain an advantage over the United States. As a result of this uncertainty, the original treaty contained many provisions that were designed to detect efforts to hide or deploy extra missiles, particularly with the uncertainty about how many missiles each side actually had. These measures included on-site inspections to verify the number of mobile ICBMs and warheads assigned to missiles, as well as random, short-notice inspections to deter hidden movements. While these were not intended to provide an exact count on the total number of mobile ICBMs and warheads the other party had, the goal was to limit the breakout potential of the other party. The 1991 START contained provisions for 12 different types of on-site inspections, each with different abilities that covered different goals. One of the major changes that Woolf discusses is the consolidation in the 2011 START into 2 types of on-site inspections that achieve the same goals as the previous inspection types, but trims them down into more simple types of inspections that can cover many areas. The overall goals of the changes to the verification were to reduce the complexity and costliness of the inspections for both parties while understanding that the need for stringent verification and monitoring was not as high as it has been before. Are the changes made to the new START treaty smart considering how US and Russian relations have changed since the 1991 treaty, or should the US have pushed harder to keep the treaty stricter on things like missile test data? Is the move to a less complex and costly verification framework smart? I think that given the familiarity the countries now have, the easing of some of the treaty’s provisions show that the US is willing to cooperate and make concessions to keep the trust of other countries.

I thought this article brought up interesting points about how the increased familiarity between the United States and Russia lead to the changes in the new START, and some interesting questions about this cooperative effort. The main argument Woolf mentions against the treaty is that the US could be giving itself a strategic disadvantage by giving so much information to Russia when Russia’s nuclear arsenal is already aging and no longer poses the immediate nuclear threat that it used to, nor is there as much concern about Russian incentives to violate the treaty. Through the use of NTMs, some argue that the US can already monitor Russian weapons systems, so the treaty is not necessary. Woolf counters by highlighting the value of international cooperation and the continued building of trust between the US and Russia, and also that the treaty shows the United States’ commitment to its obligations under the NPT. By cooperating and sharing its information, the treaty can provide benefits by convincing more nations to join the US in strengthening the NPT and isolating rogue nations like Iran and North Korea. These benefits would be difficult to measure, and I’m not sure I agree that this is an benefit of continuing with START. Do you think the benefits of an arms control treaty outweigh the potential loss of strategic advantage that could come with sharing our own information with Russia? — Nikhil

7 thoughts on “A New START: Changes in US-Russian Arms Control

  1. To answer your final question, I would argue that modern-day START is an asset to U.S. diplomacy, not “a potential loss of strategic advantage.” Furthermore, I would argue that eliminating it completely would constitute an even worse strategic blunder than maintaining the treaty’s framework in-place.

    To quote ex-U.S. Senator Dick Lugar: “the current U.S.- Russian relationship is complicated enough without introducing more elements of uncertainty. Failure to preserve the START Treaty would increase the potential for distrust between the two sides.” (Woolf, 2)

    In the case of diplomacy, more communication is better than less, and the START treaty provides the verification mechanisms necessary to help avoid miscommunications that may cause provocations. These measures may be costly, elaborate and, to an extent, outdated, but they remain a source of constancy in the volatile, realpolitik world of U.S.-Russian relations.

    The recent series of diplomatic escalations between the United States and Russia show the value in having long-term, formal agreements such as START to maintain the basic trust and cooperation between the two countries, especially on vital issues as nuclear weapons. START’s strict verification protocol formally endorses a certain level of information sharing that reinforces cultural openness, what Woolf calls “trust,” that minimizes international tensions on the nuclear issue.

    Discontinuing START may seem attractive on paper, but it creates bad perception. Practically, speaking, one could argue with empirical evidence that NTMs undercut START’s verification utility. However, these mechanisms do not inherently promote open or cooperative international relationships. Instead, withdrawing from START sends the opposite message, that the U.S. and Russia do not trust each other and reject internationalist nuclear diplomacy in exchange for isolationism. This would have wide-ranging political implications, including the ways in which international partners regulate, monitor, and verify nuclear stockpiles.

    One might also argue discontinuing the START might only be a symbolic gesture, but it would nonetheless weaken the United States’ global prestige and leadership, while adding extra uncertainty to an already uncertain relationship with Russia.

  2. One detail that fascinated me within this Congressional Research Service report was the position of the United States at the turn of the 21st century and since then around mutual reduction of arms.

    As we learned from this CRS research paper, a large part of the incentives to enter into these treaties is the desire for control issued over the other signatories nuclear arsenals. While there must be significant insecurity over willingly destroying or deconstructing one’s own weapon supply, knowing that nuclear war in the future is always a possibility, countries like the United States and Russia have pledged to self-handicap in treaties like START and SALT. The logical diplomatic reason for these concessions is the fact that they take it on good faith that the other country, incidentally their rival and largest threat, is doing the same. It’s the converse of mutually assured destruction.

    What really shocked me about the United States’ most recent position on START, however, was that they simply do not place as much value on Russia eliminating its arsenal. On page 8, Woolf reports that: “Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out that the United States no longer sized or structured its military forces as a response to the Russian threat, and it planned to reduce its weapons with or without a treaty and with or without Russian reductions. As a result, even if Russia violated the treaty and did not reduce its forces, the United States would have no reason to respond with force increases of its own.” This new era of arms control treaties seems to disregard a fundamental motivational principle of arms reduction, and implies that there is something to be gained from self-handicapping and weakening the defensive capabilities of the United States even if one’s rival country is not scaling their arsenal down at the same rate.

    Returning to Sagan’s article, it is possible that perhaps the United States does not perceive the Russians to be as significant of a threat as they did in the decades when START first took effect. Sagan could also theorize that politicians are responding to domestic trends away from nuclear capabilities, and offering a dove-ish diplomatic face rather than that of a hawk. It must also be noted that Woolf theorizes on page 12 that Russia would do the same in continuing to scale down their capabilities even if verification that the United States was holding up their end of the bargain was not guaranteed. Overall, it would be interesting to explore what has caused this trust and thaw in relations.

    Finally, it is vital to note that this report was written in 2011, amidst the Obama administration “reset” of relations and before the invasion of Crimea, other examples of Russian aggression, and the 2016 election interference and recent nerve agent assassinations which has placed the United States and Russia on a collision course. It is hard to imagine that the same level of trust and public complacency will continue in the near future, and it will be interesting to see whether mutual disarmament and verification will gain greater value.

  3. One theme that carried throughout Woolf’s piece was that it is nearly impossible to completely monitor and regulate an adversary’s nuclear activity, and therefore verification efforts must be implemented with the goal of making noncompliance risky and difficult. To answer your question about the benefits of an arms control treaty outweighing the potential loss of strategic advantage, it is important to see that arms control treaties help not only to achieve the aforementioned goal, but how they come with added benefits for the member states involved and promote cooperation and transparency between powerful nuclear states.

    We can see from the IPNDV’s Framework Document detailing the “Principles for Nuclear Disarmament Verification,” which was released very recently in November 2017, that the driving principles behind the 2011 new START treaty are still of paramount importance when looking at arms control. Principle 2 establishes that verification mechanisms must help build confidence between the two governments and lay the groundwork for a working relationship between inspectors and those working on-site. This principle, along with Principles 5 & 6, which describe the necessity of cost efficiency and clarity/simplicity in verification mechanisms, are all deeply embedded in the new START. Woolf describes how START forces the Russian and American governments to “communicate and cooperate to resolve questions about the military forces that are central to their national security goals” (Woolf, 6). Communication and transparency will drive efforts to deter noncompliance, and this fostering of cooperation is extremely important given the nuclear capabilities of both countries.

    The need for cost-efficiency and a less complex system is another pillar of an effective verification mechanism, and the provisions in new START are specifically targeted at reducing the impractical intricacies that held back previous verification regimes. The fact that both governments agreed upon easing of regime’s complexity, reducing its costs, and minimizing its interference with ongoing military operations, and both valued “continuing some level of transparency and cooperation” (Woolf, 1), shows the power of the new START to bring global superpowers to a compromise, and this is a testament to the effectiveness of this treaty to inspire cooperation regarding areas that require measured negotiations with a more diplomatic approach due to the potentially catastrophic nature of the issue at hand.

    On a final note, one piece of Woolf’s report that I found particularly interesting was her discussion of the evaluation portion of the verification regime. Her point that evaluation is a political, not technical, process was an important reminder that there is no clear path to accurate monitoring and regulation, because it all comes down to the fact that “verification is almost always a matter of judgment” (Woolf, 5). Keeping treaties like START in effect ensure that throughout this fairly subjective and political climate-sensitive process, communication remains transparent and effective.

  4. Professor Glaser’s point in class today about the redundancy of monitoring and verification treaties is a salient starting point in considering the utility of START. If Russia was intent on operating outside of the stipulations set forth in the treaty, then they would not have joined in the first place. This consideration provides a base level of security and assurance. Additionally, it sets an international precedent and puts pressure on other countries to abide by similar policies. However, if Russia did plan to violate the arms control agreement, they could of course withdraw from the treaty at any time, rather than having their transgressions uncovered by US investigators.

    Considering this and the current capabilities of NTMs, it seems that the value of the treaty lies not in its power (or rather its lack of power) to deter Russian nuclear advancement, but rather in the diplomatic bridges it establishes and the precedent that it sets for the international community.

    Furthermore, the long-established mutually assured destruction minimizes the potential for a loss of US strategic advantage. Regardless of the United States’ current technical advantages, Russia’s arsenal is well-poised to wreak global havoc should the country choose to do so. What is thus of far greater concern is the dissemination of weapons or crucial technologies to entities outside of the START treaty. Over the past year, we have seen Russia arm the Syrian military and the Taliban. The greatest nuclear threat that Russia can impose on the United States would involve their covert arming/enabling a non-Russian state/entity with weapons of mass destruction, which might not prompt US retaliation and MAD. To whatever extent that START verification programs hinder the possibility of nuclear dissemination, the program is of great use. I was surprised to hear little about this consideration and would be interested to discuss this more in precept tomorrow.

  5. In response to Nikhil’s question about loss of strategic advantage, I agree with Jordan that information-sharing under the new START does not compromise U.S. interests. The use of NTMs on both sides allows for monitoring of weapons systems even if a formal treaty were not in place. A treaty increases transparency, but it seems that NTMs are capable of detecting militarily significant movements or production of weapons on their own. Former verification regimes have also allowed both sides to collect a great deal of information about the other side’s arsenals and trends in production quantity. It thus seems that both sides already have a great deal of information about the other; I’m not sure that new START gives Russia much of an informational advantage over the U.S. Rather, I think this demonstrates that the goal of a verification regime is less about counting warheads than it is about fostering mutual trust and minimizing the risk of miscommunication. In theory, a successful arms control theory should ease tensions between the participating states.

    However, I have doubts about whether the existence of an arms control treaty really says anything about the relationship between signatories. Like Sarah said, Russia seems to have become increasingly aggressive in recent years. I wonder what new START’s impact on Russian behavior has been, if any. Is new START inhibiting Russian aggression, i.e. would Russia be behaving even more aggressively if not for new START? Maybe Russia would have acted in more extreme ways, but did not out of fear of jeopardizing future negotiations. What if new START actually enabled or encouraged aggression? Perhaps because new START is less rigorous than the previous START regime, Russia perceived this as a sign of American weakness. Or maybe Russia felt that its compliance with new START allowed it to infringe on other international norms of behavior. Of course, it’s also possible that there is no relationship at all between new START and Russia’s current actions.

    The question going forward is whether increasingly tense U.S.-Russia relations will affect new START. The agreement expires in less than three years with an option to extend it. Will the extension happen? Trump has called new START a “bad deal,” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-putin/exclusive-in-call-with-putin-trump-denounced-obama-era-nuclear-arms-treaty-sources-idUSKBN15O2A5) and the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review provides no clear answers on whether the administration favors extension (https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF). Maybe in a few years we’ll be looking at a new, “new START” agreement. This is perhaps an area where the U.S. DOES have a serious strategic disadvantage. Putin’s interminable presidency allows him to simply wait for a newer, friendlier U.S. administration. If each U.S. president opts to “reset” arms control negotiations, this provides Russia the ability to maintain a consistent policy and pursue long-term goals while the U.S.’s stance might change every four to eight years.

  6. I think in the particular political climate, it is necessary for the U.S. to have an arms control treaty with Russia, even though it would involve a potential loss of strategic advantage. The articles and timeline that we read that focus specifically on the historical development of treaties were written in the early 2010s when Obama was still in power and relationships between the U.S. and Russia were perhaps qualitatively better. Since then, the climate between the two nations has changed substantially. With recent events such as Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and last month’s poisoning in the U.K., the level of trust between the U.S. and Russia has decreased substantially.

    In Woolf’s article, one of the claims she makes is that even the willingness/ability to negotiate the START treaty was predicated on decades of trust-building between the two nations. As of late, this trust seems to be breaking down—between the U.S. and Russia as well as between other nations and international bodies and Russia. Due to the deterioration of the political climate, I think an arms control treaty is necessary to ensure the U.S. can continue to themselves be able to verify Russia’s nuclear capabilities.

    If anything, it may be necessary to enact a treaty that more closely resembles the first START treaty. Woolf argues the first START treaty was negotiated with the belief that Russia would engage in cheating behavior. She describes a model for negotiating treaties is to “begin with the assumption that a party to the treaty would want to retain excess forces or engage in activities limited by the treaty so that could retain or acquire additional military capabilities and advantages.” (8) This seems to be the best model for an era in which there is such a breakdown in international trust.

  7. Very thorough post, thanks Nikhil. I thought the most interesting part of the report was the examination of how both sides sought to update the treaty due to two major changes: 1. the end of the Cold War and major superpower competition between the US and Russia and 2. the fact that the US and Russia now have people with many years of experience with verification programs also well as an intimate knowledge of the other country’s weapons program.

    Obviously much has changed since the end of the Cold War. While technology continues to improve, neither side seems to feel the same sense of urgency about keeping up with the other. It seems as though during the Cold War both sides were obsessed with measuring who exactly was in the lead in terms of weapons technology, even if both sides were essentially at parity. Now, it appears that both sides simply don’t want to be too incredibly far behind the other; If the other side is somewhat ahead, that is okay because in the absence of major tensions such as those that existed during the Cold War, it is unlikely that war will break out, especially if neither side feels like it has a decisive advantage over the other.

    To your question Nikhil, I think that even if Russia is gaining more technical information from the verification regime than we are, this is price is worth paying because cooperation on verification is an essentially avenue for trust-building and relationship-building. Especially now, there are few things that the US and Russia can cooperate on, and few US government officials who have substantive and productive relationships with Russian counterparts. These sorts of relationships are absolutely essential and I believe they are well worth the Russians gleaning slightly more about our technology from the verification regime than we glean about theirs (if this is indeed true, which there appears to be some dispute.)

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