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An Illusory New START

U.S. President Barack Obama, accompanied by, from left, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, makes a statement on the new nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia, Friday, March 26, 2010, in the press briefing room of the White House in Washington. J. David Ake

As soon as the details of the new START follow-up agreement were made public on Friday, two points became clear: First, despite the overblown rhetoric, there will be no significant reductions in nuclear arms, and, second, Moscow gave in to practically all U.S. demands. The treaty allows each side to maintain 700 deployed nuclear delivery vehicles (ballistic missiles, submarines and fighter bombers), as well as 100 “undeployed” delivery vehicles (for example, nuclear submarines that are dry-docked for repairs).

This preserves U.S. superiority over Russia in nuclear weapons. According to the data exchanged in accordance with the requirements of the START treaty, Russia has 608 nuclear delivery vehicles and the United States has 1,188. Thus, Moscow has no need to make cuts to reach 700 delivery vehicles. On the contrary, it will struggle to even come close to reaching 700 during the 10-year span of the treaty since the number of vehicles that will need to be decommissioned as a result of old age will heavily outnumber the quantity of new vehicles that Russia will be able to manufacture.

Moscow originally sought to limit U.S. ability to refit its nuclear strategic delivery vehicles with non-nuclear warheads, but it has apparently given in on this issue. The exact numbers have not yet been released, but in all likelihood after the United States reduces its number of nuclear delivery vehicles to 800, most, if not all, of its remaining delivery vehicles will be re-equipped with conventional warheads. This means that the United States will not likely have to destroy any of its strategic delivery vehicles, except for those that would need to be decommissioned in any case.

Finally, although there will be a declarative statement in the treaty that defines a link between nuclear weapons and missile defense, there is nothing in the treaty that would limit the United States from developing a strategic missile defense system. This is a big propaganda defeat for Russia since it had made missile defense such an important issue during negotiations.

Both sides were quick to praise the new agreement’s 30 percent reduction in nuclear warheads, but this number is deceiving. The limit of 1,550 warheads in the new agreement refers to deployed warheads only. But if you count the number of stored warheads — most of which are located in the United States — the total reduction will be far less than 30 percent.

Perhaps Russia’s only success was winning the demand that the number of exchanges of missile launch data will be limited under the new agreement. The exact wording has not yet been released, but some sources say the data will be exchanged only once a year, while other say only the data of five test launches per year will need to be exchanged. In either case, Russia will be able to modernize its nuclear weapons and share only a minimal amount of information with Washington. Under START, U.S. inspectors were permanently based on the outskirts of the Votkinsk missile factory, located in the Udmurtia republic, and were able to inspect virtually everything that came out of the factory doors.

The 10 rounds of negotiations, which dragged on for more than a year, were a parody of the U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations. Every condition that Russia placed — from the demands to limit U.S. missile defense to the insistence on “nuclear parity” — had all the marks of the Cold War standoff. This stance might have made sense in the 1950s, when Robert McNamara developed his version of nuclear deterrence under which each side must know that the other side is capable of inflicting “unacceptable damage” to the other. But as early as 1961, when McNamara became defense secretary under President John F. Kennedy, the definition of “acceptable damage” was narrowed exponentially to mean any nuclear attack whatsoever. This means that a nuclear first strike against Russia is inconceivable because any retaliatory strike would, by definition, inflict “unacceptable damage” on the United States.

But for some reason Russia is still stuck in the 1950s. Every condition it put forward in the START follow-up talks were based on the outdated assumption that the United States is capable of launching a first nuclear strike.

A real victory for both sides would be if the Kremlin finally put the Cold War to rest and started acting like it is 2010 and not 1955.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

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