New START Treaty Passes Final Hurdle in Russia

January 26, 2011 Updated: January 26, 2011

Russia’s upper house ratified the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) agreement on Wednesday, kicking into gear the deal signed by President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in April 2010.

Washington is calling the deal a “reset” in mutual ties between the former Cold War adversaries, as was reiterated by Obama in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.

In the coming days, the ratified document will be signed into law by Medvedev, whose trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was interrupted by the suicide bomb attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport on Monday.

The new nuclear arms control treaty replaces the old one that expired on Dec. 5, 2009. It includes a 30 percent reduction in each country’s nuclear stockpile within seven years of the treaty coming into force. By that time, each nation’s nuclear inventory will not be allowed to exceed 1,550 warheads, 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and 800 non-deployed ICBM launchers.

The U.S. Congress ratified the treaty last December, after being stalled by the Republican-dominated Senate. The Republicans said they were worried that the deal would give the Kremlin an unfair advantage because Russia possesses more tactical, short-range nuclear weapons than does the United States—and they might be more likely to use them.

This issue of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) still needs to be negotiated. The short-range weapons, designed to be used on a battlefield, were a large part of the nuclear weapons stockpiles built up during the Cold War.

The United States has about 400 TNWs deployed and the same number in reserve, compared to Russia, which is thought to have 3,800 deployed and 2,000 in reserve, according to Micah Zenko, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Zenko said that the Russians have kept these TNWs because “they worry very much about China.” However, there is no mention of China in Russia’s National Security Strategy or military documents, he said.

According to the Arms Control Association, the Chinese regime posses about 300 nuclear weapons, including 40 to 50 long-range ballistic missiles.

U.S. defenses would still remain strong, despite the reductions mandated in the treaty with about “2,000 nuclear weapons that can go anywhere in the world within one hour,” according to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Earlier this week, Russian parliament amended the terms of the treaty, giving the Kremlin the option to withdraw if it deems the U.S.-led missile defense shield in Europe to be a threat to national interests—something that has long been a concern to Russian leadership.

Last November at the NATO summit in Lisbon, the 28-nation Western Alliance invited Russia to join the missile-shield plan, insisting that it is to guard against threats by nations like Iran. Russia remains skeptical.

The United States is treating the treaty as a positive sign, but still as just a start down a long road.

“The New START treaty is mostly about helping to create a better overall framework for U.S.-Russian relations, in particular, in an area where Russia is a ‘major player’ and has much to contribute,” said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO under President Clinton.

The major issue for the New START of course will be compliance, which Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, called “daunting.”

“The nuclear arms control agenda holds opportunities and challenges ahead. The monitoring, transparency, and verification challenges alone are daunting,” she said in a Washington speech on Jan. 19.

Hunter said that the next steps were unlikely to deal with arms control, but rather in other areas such as Afghanistan or corking Iran’s nuclear program.