The Obama administration handed Russia an early arms-control gift last week. It was much more meaningful than the symbolic “reset” button Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva last month, which was meant to mark a new start to the relationship after years of tension.
The gift was not material, but it satisfied a longtime Russian wish — keeping so-called tactical nuclear weapons out of negotiations on arms reductions — and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington, was more than happy to receive it.
Mr. Kislyak was one of two speakers on a panel during the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s annual nonproliferation conference. The other speaker was Rose Gottemoeller, the new assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance. She will be the chief U.S. negotiator of a follow-on to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Moscow, which expires in December.
One of the issues brought up during the session had to do with tactical nuclear weapons, also known as nonstrategic bombs for possible battlefield use that do not require long-distance delivery vehicles, such as missiles, as do strategic weapons.
“My own view is that the immediate START follow-on negotiations will not be the area where that issue is immediately pursued,” Ms. Gottemoeller said.
That comment visibly pleased Mr. Kislyak, who said that Washington and Moscow “have enough work to do now to focus on things that are doable, because when you go to substrategic [arms], there will be a lot of other things that need to be entered into the play.”
Both officials attributed their intention to exclude tactical weapons from the upcoming post-START negotiations to the lack of sufficient time, given that the two countries want a new agreement to be concluded before the 1991 treaty’s expiration.
“I certainly believe we should begin exploring the issues with the Russian Federation and decide how to fit that into the agenda,” Ms. Gottemoeller said, adding that President Obama believes that “this is an area that should be” dealt with at some point.
Critics say, however, that Russia has much more to gain from delaying tactical-arms cuts because it has several thousand such weapons, while the U.S. only has several hundred.
“There is real danger in rushing to reduce U.S. nuclear strategic weapons, while at the same time thousands of Russian tactical nuclear weapons remain available for use against us and our allies that exceed the total remaining strategic U.S. arsenal,” said Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense-consulting firm.
Both the U.S. and Russia reached the levels required by START at the beginning of the decade, so they set new requirements in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), also known as the Treaty of Moscow, which was negotiated by the Bush administration. SORT required that both countries reduce their arsenals to levels of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads.
During those negotiations, the Russians refused to discuss tactical weapons, and the Bush team did not push for it, current and former U.S. officials said.
“Unfortunately, the Bush administration didn’t choose to pursue reductions on tactical nuclear warheads, but the Obama administration has signaled that the next phase of U.S.-Russian arms cuts should cover all types of nuclear warheads and delivery systems,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
However, Mr. Kimball said that, even though “Russia’s substrategic stockpile is sizable and should be eliminated to reduce the risk of terrorist acquisition,” it “doesn’t give Russia strategic nuclear superiority by any means.”
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, agreed with Ms. Gottemoeller’s argument that completing a follow-on to START in several months is an ambitious-enough task without the inclusion of tactical weapons.
“There is a practical issue, in that there isn’t time to add the tactical weapons to the discussions and still reach the [Dec. 5] deadline,” said Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Mr. Lugar.
Mr. Kimball said the main concern should be that the U.S. and Russia “maintain an excessive number of strategic warheads that can and should be reduced in a verifiable manner to maintain predictability and stability.”
According to its 2009 START declaration, the U.S. has 550 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 432 sea-based missiles on 14 submarines and 216 bombers, which together can deliver 5,576 warheads. Russia possesses 469 nuclear-armed land-based ICBMs, 268 sea-based missiles on eight submarines and 79 nuclear-capable bombers, which together can deliver 3,909 warheads.
“In practice, not all of these systems are ‘operationally deployed,’ and many missiles and bombers carry less than a full complement of warheads,” Mr. Kimball said.
Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met during this month’s summit of the Group of 20 largest economies in London and committed their countries “to achieving a nuclear-free world, while recognizing that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures.”
“We agreed to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing [START] with a new, legally binding treaty,” they said in a long joint statement. “We are instructing our negotiators to start talks immediately on this new treaty and to report on results achieved in working out the new agreement by July.”