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Mikhail Troitskiy

PhD in Political Science, Associate Professor, MGIMO University, RIAC Expert

Attempts to take advantage of the vulnerability of the contracting party in the relationship present a dangerous precedent. Above all, they contradict the spirit of global interests as they make the achieved agreement fragile, dependent of the current balance of forces which cannot stay invariable for a long time.

START I was the first agreement on the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons of the two largest nuclear states reached in a new political climate of Soviet-American relations. By the end of the 1980s the risks of sustaining excessive arsenals of nuclear arms became evident. The threat of lagging behind the “strategic adversary” in quantity and quality of nuclear weapons, which caused multiple fits of anxiety both in Moscow and Washington in the 1960s and 1970s, could no longer be treated seriously by the end of the 1980s. Besides, later in the 1980s the USSR and the US were striving to translate an abrupt thaw in their relations into actual agreements on the key issues. In July 1991, after six years of difficult negotiations, when the influence of the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev began its sharp decline, and the country faced an internal crisis, Moscow and Washington stepped up the negotiation process.

USSR and US Presidents M.Gorbachev and George Bush signed the START I on July 31, 1991 in Moscow. Pursuant to the Treaty the actual number of nuclear warheads in the USSR (hereinafter Russia) had to be reduced from 10 877 to 6 940, while in the United States – from 11 602 to 8 592. Those limits were reached by the two sides by the end of 2001. Apart from the reductions per se an important result of the START I ratification process was the redeployment to Russia of the nuclear arsenals left in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine upon disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the accession of those countries to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as non-nuclear-weapons states.

The pending expiry of the effective period of START I in December 2009 urged Moscow and Washington to work out START III, a new detailed agreement on strategic arms control. The START III talks were completed in record short time, one year only. The Treaty was signed by Presidents D.Medvedev and B.Obama in April 2010, and came into force upon the ratification procedure in February 2011.

Technical similarities between START I and START III are evident: meticulous descriptions of the limitations, and the agreements on verification measures. However, there are substantial differences. First, in contrast to START I which provided for a significant reduction of nuclear weapons both in Russia and the US, START III envisaged a higher ceiling of Russian strategic nuclear delivery vehicles than their actual number currently available in Russia. Second, START III imposes certain limitations on the land-based and sea-based missiles – not only those carrying nuclear warheads but also non-nuclear versions. The third important dissimilarity is the reference (incorporated into the preamble) to the interrelation between strategic offensive and defensive weapons. The two sides formulated the provisions in the way that permits different interpretations of the arrangements on those controversial issues. At present such an approach allowed to satisfy both the negotiators and their domestic political opponents, in Russia and the US.

However, the sides failed to reach a fundamental agreement as regards the anti-missile defense and non-nuclear strategic arms. The American administration does not rule out a future deployment of new types of non-nuclear strategic weapons which are not subject to the treaty limitations, while the US Senate urged the President to insist that any limitations on strategic arms and antiballistic missile defense are in no way interdependent. In its turn, the Russian side declared that it regarded the US large-scale deployment of anti-missile defense or non-nuclear strategic weapons as a justification for withdrawal from the START III. Keeping in mind the importance of technical aspects of the treaties, the political lessons of the START agreements are no less interesting. These lessons are of importance both to future Russian-American negotiations on arms control and bilateral relations in general, as well as to all members of the world community seeking ways to reduce the risk of a nuclear conflict.

Firstly, both START Treaties were reached as a result of the reviewed Russian (Soviet) and US approach to their relations. By the end of the 1980s the realignment was undertaken in the context of “new foreign policy thinking” of Gorbachev, and in the end of the 2000s – of Russian-American “resetting of relations”. Besides, elaboration of the two treaties was headed by the “tandems” of unorthodox-minded leaders. In the case of START III young Russian and American Presidents (by the world political elite standards) were trying to gain a footing in the capacity of world leaders capable to contribute to the solution of global issues. Besides, they both supported the idea of profound reduction of nuclear weapons.

The second lesson proves the decisive role of a political will in achieving major agreements on arms control. Both START I and START III incorporated technical details which were quite easy to coordinate, in fact, their synchronization was the key reason the parties entered the negotiations. However, in both instances there were disputable technical aspects implied by the asymmetry of arsenals and strategies of the parties. If the talks had failed most likely those aspects would have been the explanation of the unsigned agreement. Surely, politicians and experts would have declared that it could not have been otherwise, as the sides faced “irreconcilable disagreements” on the “key issues”. Such “truth” would be never doubted for many years to come until the “insoluble” problems would unexpectedly evaporate over several days or even hours as a result of a top-level political agreement.

Head of the Soviet delegation Ambassador Yu.Nazarkin recollects in his memoirs how Moscow and Washington managed to go down the road starting from what seemed to be a hopeless impasse in the START I talks ending up with signing a concerted treaty on the highest level within several days of July 1991. By the time he was beginning to think about stalling the negotiations because of their hopelessness, the discussions had been underway for more than six years – since March 1985 [1]. The talks on START III lasted for one year only – from May 2009 through April 2010. Their dynamic development and completion in record undertime became possible only due to the political will of the both sides. According to the Russian Foreign Minister S.Lavrov the Russian President personally kept the negotiation process under control, and was directly involved in the solution of most difficult issues during his regular contacts with the US President. Unprecedentedly deep engagement of the two state leaders into negotiating problems played the key role in finding mutually accepted solutions on crucial issues, he writes. [2].

The third lesson learned by Moscow and Washington from the process of drafting the treaties on strategic arms control is that Russian and American negotiators found it difficult to enlist internal political support of the treaties in the environment where Russia and the US viewed each other as a “potential enemy”. Guided by this prejudice, parliamentarians fear to endorse measures which might disarm the nation in the face of an “insidious opponent”. For one, B.Obama urged the Senate to ratify START III since the Treaty allowed the US to strengthen national security through the monitoring of Russian nuclear arsenals, but not because Russia, for example, was no longer a US adversary. In its turn, the Russian side feared that consolidation of the American security could imply the weakening of its own safety. In the same way the White House and the Congress become apprehensive when politicians and experts in Moscow praise the Treaty or welcome its signing.

Moscow and Washington could avoid such difficulties and at the same time enhance the level of trust in bilateral relations if they openly or implicitly agreed to refrain from using the vulnerable pins of the other side in negotiations, but agreed to be governed by the principles of maximum mutual benefit and advantage to the world community.

It seems that until now in negotiations on nuclear weapons control the sides have assigned primary importance to taking advantage of each other’s weaknesses. Most often the vulnerable pins were found due to internal political or economic reasons. For one, until the early 1970s the Soviet Union denied the principle of the “mutual assured destruction”, evidently, assuming that it could achieve superiority over the US facing financial trouble and internal tensions because of the war in Vietnam. However, early in the 1980s Washington understood that Moscow no longer had the potential to respond symmetrically to the projects of deployment of antimissile defense systems, that it would be forced to insist on the “mutual assured destruction” as a means to ensure strategic stability.

A voluntary refusal to take advantage of the opponent’s vulnerability in the talks looks unusual if one plays by the established rules of the game in the international arena. The notion of ethics in the interaction between the states is traditionally interpreted in a more limited scope than in human relations. Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge that Russia and the United States occupy a special place in the world community as they are nuclear superpowers. When substantiating their approach to the problems of non-proliferation and arms control, other nuclear and non-nuclear countries make reference to their behavior in the nuclear sphere.

Therefore, the ability of Russia and the US to overcome mutual distrust and to accumulate political will required to successfully proceed with the nuclear weapons talks (both strategic and non-strategic) would set an important example to other countries. The publicly declared focus on the imperatives of global and regional security, instead of the focus on the interests of the two negotiating parties exclusively, could help Russia and the US enhance their international prestige and repel the opponents’ attacks claiming that nuclear superpowers are concerned only about their ability to inflict “unacceptable damage” to the opponent.

The attempts to take advantage of opponent’s vulnerability present a dangerous precedent. They also disagree with the spirit of the worldwide interests as they make the achieved agreement fragile, dependent on the current balance of forces which cannot remain invariable for a long time.

1. Nazarkin Yu. Ten Years of the START Treaty // International Life. 2004. December. P. 122-123.

2. Lavrov S. New START Treaty in the Global Security Matrix the Political Dimension // International Life. 2010. July. P. 6.

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