Pointless hampering of Start-II agreement

Publish date: June 25, 1997

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russian ratification of the START II arms reduction agreement is hampered by the communist majority in the State Duma. While the communists fear the inherent reductions in the Russian nuclear arsenal, Bellona Web now unveils that the Russian Navy has no room even for the reduced number of warheads.

On June 16, the Russian delegation returned from Boston after informal negotiations with the Americans on the Start-III agreement. Meanwhile, the communist majority in the Russian State Duma is still hampering Russia’s ratification of Start-II. The agreement was signed by USA and Russia in January 1993, and the US ratified it in 1996.

The main argument of those who oppose Russian ratification of START-II, is the fact that the treaty calls for the intercontinental ballistic missiles of SS-18 type (Satan) to be decommissioned. Although developed in the beginning of the 70’s, these missiles are still considered to be among the most effective by Russian militarists. But, out of 308 of these missiles only 180 are currently in operation, and these too have overpassed their lifetime. Irrespective of whether the treaty is ratified or not, the SS-18 missiles will have to be taken out of service by year 2007, observes Russian daily Izvestya.

According to the START-II agreement, Russian strategic forces should possess 3250 nuclear warheads by year 2003. Current Russian military plans – given the most favourable economical conditions – call for between 3000 and 3300 warheads by 2007. Of these, 800-900 nuclear warheads are to be placed at land-based launchers, 700-720 nuclear warheads on bombers, and some 1700 nuclear warheads on-board nuclear powered submarines.

No room in the Navy

Assessing the current situation in the Russian navy, it is hard to see how those 1700 warheads are to be handled, as the number of operating and operational submarines is diminishing, while construction of new vessels is obstructed by lacking funds.

The plans allocate 120 SS-N-20 missiles (10 warheads on each missile; 1200 warheads in all) on 6 submarines of Typhoon class. To date, 6 Typhoons have been built. Of these, two were officially taken out of operation in 1996, while the remaining four are to be pulled out of service by the beginning of the next century, although more realistic reports name earlier dates.

112 missiles of SS-N-23 type (4 warheads on each missileL; 448 warheads in all) are to be placed on 7 submarines of Delta-IV class. Allthough these are currently in operation in the Northern Fleet, their operational capabilities are highly questioned, owing to the lack of funding for maintenance and repair work.

48 missiles of SS-N-18 type (three nuclear warheads on each missile; 144 warheads in all) are to be placed on three submarines of Delta-III class. Currently, there are 14 submarines of this class in operation, split between the Northern and Pacific fleets. The latest Delta-III was commissioned in 1981. Considering the relatively short life time of the Russian subs, mainly due to the lack of proper maintenance, it is unlikely that any of the submarines of this class will survive until year 2000.

Finally, the remainder of 96-128 nuclear warheads are to be placed on two new strategic submarines – in case their construction is completed. The construction of the first submarine of the new fourth generation Borey class, was launched in Severodvinsk at the end of last year, but the project seems to lack stable funding.

Looser’s position

In case the treaty is not ratified, the US will have the possibility to increase its strategic nuclear potential from 3454-3484 (defined by Start-II) to some 4500-4600 nuclear warheads (according to START-I). A similar approach seems impossible for Russia, due to the country’s ongoing economical crises.

Taken the above-mentioned into account, the most favourable and realistic approach for Russia is to go for the Start-III treaty, which presumes reduction of strategic nuclear warheads from 3000-3500 to 600-700. But the national-patriotic majority of the Duma do not estimate the situation realistically, casting away the financial aid provided by the US for dismantling of nuclear warheads within the Start-II agreement, hence facing the difficulties with handling the enormous stocks of discarded nuclear weaponry.

In Brussels on June 12 this year, the NATO countries expressed their belief that the Russian Government understands the importance of the Start-II agreement in relation to nuclear safety. They also expressed their hope that Russian President Boris Yeltsin would pay the required attention to the question, and put the necessary pressure on the Russian parliament.

The reaction from the Russian side came on June 22, when Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov ,at a briefing in Denver, said that the Russian government is making efforts to accelerate the ratification process. Whether the Duma will follow remains to be seen.