To mark the anniversary of START I signed in Moscow on July 31, 1991, the Russian International Affairs Council asked strategic arms control experts several questions about the importance of START I and the prospects for new treaties to be signed.
- Why was START I a breakthrough? What explains the success in negotiating and signing the treaty?
- Could any elements from START I be used in subsequent “START-like” treaties or any other future mechanisms of arms control and for reducing the nuclear threat in general?
Andrey Baklitskiy, Senior Researcher, Institute for International Studies, MGIMO University; PIR Centre consultant; RIAC expert
On July 31, 1991, the USSR and the U.S. signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), thereby concluding one of the most ambitious bilateral negotiation processes: the Nuclear and Space Arms Talks. Alongside the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (the INF Treaty), START I provided for a real reduction in nuclear arsenals and shaped Russian-American arms control as we know it today. In light of this, it is all the more curious to recall that the circumstances were not particularly conducive to optimism when the talks began in the mid-1980s. The number of similarities between today’s circumstances and those of 35 years ago is even more curious.
Both then and now, Moscow–Washington relations were at a nadir. Arms control talks were to start after an unprecedented hiatus. In 1983, following the deployment of American missiles in Europe, the Soviet-American dialogue was cut off for the first time since the 1960s to only be resumed in 1985. Today, the parties have to overcome both the pause in their dialogue following the 2010 New START and the consequences of the Trump Administration’s destructive actions.
As in the 1980s, Russia and the U.S. only have one strategic treaty that remains in effect—today the New START, back then the Missile Defense Treaty. Just like 35 years ago, another treaty that is not officially in force continues to be observed—back then SALT II, today the INF Treaty; but it is apparently only a matter of time before these restrictions are removed. Washington has accused Moscow of breaching arms control treaties and will continue to do so (the USSR fared even worse, having been accused of breaching such exotic documents as the Geneva Protocol and the CSCE Final Act). These actions brought into question the very possibility of a treaty being signed with Russia. Finally, there are many interconnected issues on the agenda, with missile defense, outer space, strategic arms, intermediate- and shorter-range missiles having been on the agenda since the 1980s and tactical nuclear weapons and new “exotic” delivery vehicles being added now. This makes seeking a comprehensive solution very difficult (as has always been the case).
In the 1980s, the parties succeeded in overcoming these difficulties. In response to the allegations of various violations, an advanced verification system was instituted. The broad agenda was divided into three negotiating tracks, and the USSR ultimately agreed to consider them separately, which resulted in the signing of the INF Treaty and New START. Today, Moscow is far more open when it comes to verification in arms control. Russia’s conceptual approach to talks with the U.S., the so-called “strategic equation,” does indeed entail determining the interrelation between all the factors affecting strategic stability; however, this approach does not require—as far as we can see—forging legal connections between the different thematic dimensions. The possibility of extending treaties to new systems and technologies is not cause for much alarm either as Moscow and Washington have repeatedly done so in the past as well as quite recently when the New START was extended to cover the Avangard missile complex with its hypersonic glide vehicle.
At the same time, today’s situation has two distinguishing features that diplomats in the 1980s did not have to consider all that much. First, there is the sharp polarization of the American political system, which significantly complicates ratification of arms control treaties and normalizes the country’s withdrawal from legally binding agreements when a new administration assumes office. Second, the nuclear arsenals of third countries, primarily China, are now of greater significance. Even though Beijing’s build-up of nuclear arsenal is not directed against Moscow, Washington’s response to it will inevitably influence Russia–U.S. strategic balance and their bilateral dialogue.
The success of the Nuclear and Space Arms Talks took many years of intense and coordinated work both by the USSR and by the U.S. Without an equally hard work whatever the circumstances, it would be impossible to repeat this success today, combining stances that are often at odds and enhancing national security of both countries. Unfortunately, given all the factors mentioned above, there is little hope for perfect circumstances.
Col. Gen. (Ret.) Victor Esin, Ph.D. (Military Sciences), Research Professor, Advanced National Security Studies Center, Expert Institute, Higher School of Economics National Research University, Moscow
For the two superpowers at that time, the USSR and the U.S., seeing START I signed on July 31, 1991 was a milestone in nuclear disarmament. For the first time ever, the two states signed a treaty that not only limited their strategic nuclear forces (as SALT I of 1972 and SALT II of 1979 did) but also reduced them significantly, by about 1.5 times.
Yet, START I is important not only because it enshrined a quantitative reduction in the nuclear forces of the USSR and the U.S. Its crucial importance lay in ensuring 1) strategic stability in the Soviet–American relations by envisioning a verification system that provided for the requisite verifiability of compliance; and 2) such transparency of strategic nuclear forces and their vital functions that ruled out any incentive for the parties to launch a pre-emptive mutual nuclear strike.
In drafting and signing START I, the parties devised approaches to limiting and reducing strategic arms and to designing a system of verification—these were later used in every subsequent Russia–U.S. nuclear arms treaty, including the New START that still remains in effect. This clearly evidences that both the USSR and the U.S. demonstrated exceptional foresight in developing START I. They obviously understood that strategic stability in the Soviet–American relations could only be achieved through signing a legally binding agreement on strategic nuclear arms. That remains true and indisputable for the Russia–U.S. relations today.
Olga Oliker, Program Director for Europe and Central Asia, International Crisis Group
The greatest accomplishment of the START I treaty was that it was signed at all. Thirty years later, the details may blur, but a quick look at the history reminds us: START I signature followed ten difficult years of negotiations, during which the U.S. and Soviet arsenals reached heights of over 60,000 warheads combined. Not unrelatedly, the decade was marked by uncertainty and conflict. It saw dramatic leadership changes in Moscow following the deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, with the last succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Tensions throughout the developing world pitted Moscow and Washington against one another, not least of them the war in Afghanistan, from which the USSR withdrew in 1989. In Europe, US deployments of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, a response to Soviet development of systems that the US and its allies saw as threats, ended with the 1987 signature of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But the new treaty came at the cost of further delays to the strategic arms control agenda.
Despite all of this, Moscow and Washington were able to agree to a treaty that was truly revolutionary. START I limited warhead numbers, not just launchers like their precursor SALT treaties did, paving the way for real reductions and more treaties, such that arsenals today are a fraction of what they were in the 1980s. It incorporated unprecedented verification provisions, ones that gave both sides more understanding and visibility of the other’s arsenal than had ever before been imagined. This accomplishment is a tremendous testament to the skill of the negotiators, and to the commitment of leaders of both countries.
I think the main lesson is that it’s never easy, but the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The SALT Treaties and ABM, which preceded START I, weren’t easy, either. Nor was anything that followed. Even START I itself necessitated the Lisbon protocol, when the Soviet Union dissolved less than a year after the treaty’s signature. With the protocol, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan became parties to the treaty in the USSR’s place, and Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan committed to be non-nuclear weapon states. One can look at the history of arms control and see START II, which never entered into force, the demise of the ABM Treaty, the more recent death of INF, the abysmal state of the multilateral Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and now the end of Open Skies, victim to first a US and then a Russian decision to withdraw this past year. This seems like a terrible record. But one can also see those continuing reductions in numbers. One can point to the recent success of New START extension. And one can laud the Russian and US negotiators who are again returning to the table, even as their positions are extremely far apart, because they know that this is the only way to make progress. U.S. and Soviet positions were also very far apart at the beginning of START I negotiations. One reason arms control works, when it does work, is that it accepts that the relationship is inherently adversarial, but posits that the adversaries, or potential adversaries, want to make it less dangerous. If Moscow and Washington think creatively, and have the commitment and skills of their predecessors, they can yet find ways forward that make everyone safer.
Alexander Savelyev, D.Sc. (Political Sciences), Chief Research Fellow, Center of International Security, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO); START I negotiator
When START I was signed and entered into force, this symbolized the conclusion of the nuclear arms race and “set off” a reverse process of reducing the accumulated nuclear arsenals.
In its scope of strategic nuclear arms control and in-depth elaboration of technical details achieved over years of intense work (1985–1991), START I is an outstanding international document. The parties to the Treaty succeeded in coordinating the entire range of extremely complex documents that make up this treaty.
START I was developed as a bilateral Soviet–American treaty but it became a multilateral instrument following the collapse of the USSR: Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine acceded to the current Russian–American treaty and committed to eliminating nuclear weapons on their territories to accede to the NPT as non-nuclear states.
To a certain degree, the Treaty’s key achievement lies not solely in asserting arms control but in ensuring that all subsequent treaties resulted in progressively greater reductions in strategic nuclear arms. The comprehensive control system developed as part of START I ensured sufficient mutual confidence in compliance with the Treaty and laid the foundations for subsequent agreements, primarily START II and the 2010 New START which is currently in effect.
Nor should we underestimate the significance of the principle of strategic stability that was introduced as the cornerstone of all subsequent agreements in this area.
Negative trends were mounting in the Soviet–American relations since the late 1970s, and, in fact, START I succeeded in overcoming them—when the talks started in 1985, the tenor of the Soviet–American relations began to change; by the time the Treaty was signed, they could be described as “partner” relations, although the rapprochement between the two states was advanced not just by their progress in the disarmament talks. Yet, START I was one of the brightest signs of improvement in bilateral relations, marking their transition to a new stage.
START I has affected the thinking of the military and political leadership, their approach to solving the security problem, including their views of how nuclear arms bolster security: they suddenly realized that ensuring security did not require the potential to destroy any adversary and even the entire world many times over; the capability to do so just “once” was sufficient. Accordingly, even deep reductions in strategic nuclear arms would strengthen security rather than undermine it.
It should also be stressed that the leadership of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR insisted that it was the military itself that spearheaded the nuclear disarmament program. Yet, the role of other participants in the process should not be downplayed either, starting from heads of agencies and organizations in charge of seeking solutions down to the hands-on implementers conducting the talks and coordinating the solutions to any military and technical problems. These were caused not only the diverging approaches of the parties; equal efforts were expended on inter-agency coordination in working out a common stance at the talks. The leadership of the USSR’s Communist Party Central Committee, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Defense Ministry, the military industrial complex and the KGB were the so-called “Big Five” charged with coordinating and submitting the relevant documents (including directives on talks issued to the delegation) for the Politburo’s approval. Direct “technical” coordination of every detail was the responsibility of the lower-level “fives” consisting of experts on specific areas and topics. This mechanism proved rather efficient, and START I was ready to be signed by mid-1991, despite the dramatic political upheavals followed by the collapse of the USSR that same year.
START I is a milestone agreement for the specific stage in the profound reduction of the nuclear arsenals of the two biggest military powers but it has not lost its relevance for both currently effective agreements in the area and for other international treaties to be possibly signed in the future.
Dmitry Stefanovich, Research Fellow at the Center for International Security, Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences; non-resident fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH); co-founder of the Vatfor project, RIAC Expert
Thirty years since START I was signed is a long time; even though much has changed since then, its main outcome is undoubtedly that it shaped strategic nuclear arms control as we know it today. START I was a breakthrough in terms of transparency, in how deep the two states “immersed” each other into what is almost the most valuable element of their arsenals.
This “immersion” became particularly relevant since fear was among the key drivers of the arms race which, I dare say, picked up an insane pace in the 1980s. Yes, it was just fear, and it was mutual. Both the USSR and the U.S. feared that their “potential adversary” was “plotting something” and building up the capability for a pre-emptive crushing strike in the “final battle between the good and the evil”—naturally, each party saw itself as the “good guy”. The worst thing was that, in such a situation, the danger of a nuclear conflict continued to loom large; after all, the saying about “a horrible end” being preferable to “horrors without end” relies on quite accurate features of human psychology.
So, granting access to the “holy of holies” allowed for at least some of pernicious, harmful but popular narratives to be dispersed. For instance, the Americans were very worried about Soviet mobile ICBMs (road- and rail-mobile ones, Topol and Molodets), so much so that their worries produced theories of possible secret missile stocks with spare missiles that could be adapted to these launchers as the two states exchanged nuclear strikes; the USSR would thus gain the so-called “advantage in throw-weight at third strike” (which sounds somewhat absurd in and of itself). Seeing the real situation for themselves in the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and later in those of Russia as well as in manufacturing allowed—at least, we would hope so—such bizarre (putting it mildly) ideas to be dispersed.
It is certainly quite possible that this very “seeing for themselves” on a regular basis at a time when virtually all areas of life in Russia were collapsing and deteriorating produced another narrative with a detrimental effect that we continue to feel: well, since the Russians need the American money to ensure the safety of their nuclear arsenal, everything will collapse by itself in another decade, and all the Americans need to do is not get in the way and exercise control. As we can see, nothing collapsed, quite the contrary.
At the same time, this narrative partly promoted another trend: nuclear arms and nuclear deterrence as key factors in international military and political relations were now in the background in the eyes of politicians, military personnel and scientists, with only non-proliferation meriting any attention.
In the military domain, the so-called “non-nuclear deterrence” became fashionable first in the U.S. and then in Russia. Conceptually, this approach is certainly of major interest but it ultimately produced a situation where many people apparently believed that the issue of nuclear arms would eventually resolve itself. Nothing of the sort happened, nor could have happened; in a way, the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review embodied the consequences resulting from this lack of attention to the role of nuclear arms in the arsenals of the leading world powers. The “cold shower” effect of this imperfect document acted somewhat as an incentive to seek new solutions, although this search is yet far from complete. At the same time, the re-launched Russia–U.S. dialogue on strategic stability and the generally positive and active atmosphere surrounding arms control issues—both in Russia and in the U.S.—allow for cautious optimism.
Going back to our “celebrant”, we should note another important feature of START I. Essentially, it involved not only the reductions and limitations envisaged by the treaty itself but an entire range of additional documents including politically binding agreements that, for instance, “capped” the numbers of sea-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. It appears possible that such an architecture—and possibly an even more open one—could be used in new arms control treaties primarily because they need to be extended to new actors and new technologies.