Obama Team Eyes Changes in U.S.-Russian START Verification Practices

(Apr. 17) -Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed earlier this month to press ahead with talks aimed at reducing their countries’ nuclear arsenals (Vladimir Rodionov/Getty Images).
(Apr. 17) -Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed earlier this month to press ahead with talks aimed at reducing their countries’ nuclear arsenals (Vladimir Rodionov/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration would consider embracing a new set of procedures for verifying an accord to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a senior U.S. State Department official said this week (see GSN, April 9).

"I can see some areas where perhaps we'll have to be layering on some additional verification measures, going beyond START, but I think also some areas where we might be able to streamline," the official, who declined to be named publicly, said in a Wednesday interview.

U.S. diplomats begin nuclear weapons reductions talks with their Russian counterparts this month. Press reports yesterday cited a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman saying the first contacts would occur April 24 in Rome, though the State Department official declined to confirm specific dates or venues (see GSN, April 16).

Unless the United States and Russia act to extend or replace the START agreement, its limits and verification provisions will expire on Dec. 5.

The 1991 treaty "includes an intrusive verification regime consisting of a detailed data exchange, extensive notifications, 12 types of on-site inspection, and continuous monitoring activities designed to help verify that signatories are complying with their treaty obligations," according to the Federation of American Scientists.

The U.S. intelligence community has generally supported START-type verification protocols because they offer a window into Russian missile technologies, according to experts. The exchanges also build confidence between the two sides, advocates say.

Questions have lingered over how President Barack Obama's diplomatic team might handle Russian complaints that the pact's on-site inspections and test-data exchanges tend to be cumbersome and expensive (see GSN, March 9).

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 1 issued a joint statement in London vowing "to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with a new, legally binding treaty." The two leaders said their negotiators would begin talks immediately and report on their progress by a July presidential summit in Moscow.

Under the existing pact, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their long-range nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,600 delivery vehicles and 6,000 warheads, levels reached in 2001.

The Moscow Treaty subsequently capped deployed warheads at fewer than 2,200 on each side, though the 2002 agreement contained no verification provisions. The United States has already reduced its arsenal to the required level and Russia is on track to meet a 2013 deadline.

The New York Times recently reported that the two sides are considering reductions to a level of 1,500 warheads under the new pact (see GSN, April 1).

Obama and Medvedev have instructed their respective envoys to preserve the "essential verification measures from START," but also take "account of experience from the implementation of START," the senior State Department official told Global Security Newswire.

"The START verification protocol was a good thing," the official said. "It's provided a very solid foundation [not only] for implementation of the treaty, but also for developing of our views and concepts about verification and joint cooperation and confidence-building in a kind of broader sense."

Nonetheless, it has become apparent that "both countries would like to have a smaller number of inspections, [which can be] time consuming [and] expensive," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Neither Washington nor Moscow has said much regarding how verification protocols might change under a new treaty, he said.

"This is one of the more mysterious aspects of this negotiation," Kimball said.

The senior State Department official offered a few cautious hints.

"I think we both want to take a look and say, 'Have circumstances changed and what have we learned from implementing the treaty?'" the official said. "So that's why we're glad to have the instruction from the president to take account of what we have learned from implementing START."

Some streamlining in data exchanges might be feasible thanks to technological advances, the official said.

When the treaty was signed, for example, the two sides agreed to exchange tapes containing data on how long-range missiles operated during military tests. This "telemetry" information would give each side confidence that it could distinguish the firing of a long-range ballistic missile, potentially armed with nuclear weapons, from other types of missile launches.

"Nowadays, the technology's changed so we don't need to do it that way any more," said the official, suggesting the electronic passage of information might also facilitate some additional changes in verification procedures.

The official did not offer examples of where more "layering" of verification procedures might be needed.

Whether the two sides would agree on which processes need changing has yet to be seen. To date, the Obama administration has not heard specific verification protocol concerns from the Russian side, the State Department official said.

"It wouldn't be a negotiation -- it would be a love fest -- if we didn't have points of disagreement," the official said. "So I'm sure we'll be butting heads on some things."

After the U.S.-Russian talks kick off this month, the two sides will meet again in May, according to the senior official. Then, in the run-up to the Obama-Medvedev meeting in July, negotiators from the two governments will attempt to hash out an agreement "probably almost all of June."

The official would not say how Washington and Moscow would handle the matter if an agreement is not ready for the presidents to sign in July. Optimally, experts say, a signed treaty would go before the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate for consideration and be ratified prior to START expiration in early December.

However, the process might prove to be lengthy.

"Deadlines can be useful, because they light a fire under both bureaucracies, and that's important," the senior official told GSN. "But if we're not ready to be signing the document by the fall, then we'll find a way to give both sides more time, and it will be mutually agreed. And I know the Russians feel that way, as well."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January that although seeing a new treaty ratified before the December deadline would be the first priority, the two sides would find a way to bridge any gap in verifiable accords.

"If an agreement cannot be reached [by December], a mutually acceptable means should be found to give negotiators more time, without allowing key measures, including essential monitoring and verification provisions, to lapse," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

While Clinton did not elaborate, Kimball offered three potential workarounds that might be available if the clock runs out.

First, the two sides could agree to simply extend the existing agreement under the terms of its Article 17, which allows the accord to remain in force for additional five-year periods. It might then be superseded by the new agreement, whenever it enters into force.

Second, Washington and Moscow might alternatively agree on extending the START pact for a more limited time period, such as six months. However, such an approach would require parliamentary approval on both sides because it is not a course of action laid out by the treaty, Kimball said.

A third option could be to agree on abiding by a START-replacement treaty that has been negotiated but not yet ratified, until such time lawmakers in both nations approve the new pact, he said.

The State Department official this week would not comment on the kinds of measures that might be considered if a ratified treaty appears to be out of reach by December.

"I just want to keep the pressure of the deadline on us," the official said. "And we're going to work as hard as we possibly can."

April 17, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration would consider embracing a new set of procedures for verifying an accord to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a senior U.S. State Department official said this week (see GSN, April 9).