Global Insights: Obama, Medvedev Relaunch Strategic Arms Control

Global Insights: Obama, Medvedev Relaunch Strategic Arms Control

As part of hitting the "reset button," the Obama administration has decided to focus its Russia policy for now on the urgent need to replace an expiring Russian-American nuclear arms control treaty. The approach represents a reversal of the Bush administration's stated goal of collaborating with Moscow on a broad range of issues, and also contrasts with the posture the Obama White House has adopted toward China. Unresolved Russian-American differences concerning strategic offensive arms control could impede this focused effort. And past experience makes evident that unrelated issues might easily disrupt the strategic arms control dialogue.

The two strategic arms control treaties currently in place between the two countries are the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), which expires on Dec. 5, 2009, and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which lasts through the end of December 2012. START required Russia and the United States to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 6,000 warheads on a maximum of 1,600 strategic delivery systems -- i.e., land- and sea-launched ballistic missiles or long-range bombers -- by Dec. 5, 2001. Both countries' arsenals are currently well below this level. SORT, while not restricting delivery systems, obligates both Russia and the United States to reduce their long-range nuclear stockpiles to between 1,700 and 2,200 "operationally deployed strategic warheads" by Dec. 31, 2012.

A major complication with respect to SORT, however, is that the treaty does not provide for its own verification measures. Instead, the accord depends heavily on the extensive on-site inspections, data exchanges, and other compliance measures found in START. SORT also lacks START's detailed criteria for counting both warheads and launchers. Russian officials have long favored negotiating additional detailed, legally binding agreements like START rather than a vaguely worded document like SORT, which the Russian government considers insufficiently constraining on U.S. strategic policies.

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