US seeks to keep eye on Russian nuclear arsenal as key treaty reaches expiration

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Publish date: October 19, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

WASHINGTON – With a key arms control treaty between Russia and the US set to expire on December 5th, the Obama administration is searching for ways to keep nuclear weapons inspectors in Russia or risk losing American eyes which have been verifying nuclear arms cuts under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or Start, for more than a decade.

The Obama Administration has promised deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals, both in the United States and in Russia, and even stumped for a world without nuclear weapons. But first Moscow and Washington must produce an agreement to replace Start, which lies at the backbone of many US-Russian non-proliferation agreements, like the Cooperative Threat Reduction, or Nunn-Lugar, programme.

The Start agreement was signed in 1991 before the collapse of the Soviet Union and went into effect in 1994, requiring both sides to reduce their arsenals to 6,000 warheads. The two sides are trying to produce a new treaty that keeps many of the verification and inspection elements of Start, while bringing the legal ceiling on strategic warheads and delivery vehicles down even below today’s much lower levels.

The administration hopes to follow up with a new round of negotiations on another treaty with Russia that would enact more far-reaching reductions in nuclear weapons as part of President Barack Obama’s state goal of a nuclear weapons free world.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev struck a preliminary agreement on the terms of a new treaty during a meeting in Moscow in July that would cut the arsenals of both sides by at least a quarter. The two presidents agreed to cut each side’s strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675, down from the 2,200 called for in 2012 by the Treaty of Moscow, which was signed in 2002.

Even if talks currently taking place between Russian and the United States do produce a successor Start treaty by December 5th, however, the new agreement will be left on the sidelines until it is ratified by the US senate and Russian Parliament, and Republicans have told the New York Times that the needed approval is” far from certain.”

The absence of a ratified treaty or legally binding “bridge” authority means American inspectors would have to leave Russia upon the Start treaty’s expiration. Under Start, the United States is allowed a maximum of 30 inspectors in Russia who monitor compliance with the treaty’s terms. Russia also has inspectors in the United States monitoring its interests, officials familiar with the programme have confirmed to Bellona Web.

State Department lawyers, said a spokesman there, are therefore looking over several options to preserve the United States’ monitoring and information collection capabilities on Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, asked the State Department for a report on what legal instruments were being considered as a “bridge” between the expiration of Start and a new treaty, and for a description of what verification activities could take place without a treaty.

Lugar, along with former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, co-authored the Nunn-Lugar legislation of 1992.  The legislation – which is a bargain of approximately $450 million a year to run – was predicated on the ratification of the Start treaty.

Andy Fisher, a senior adviser to the senator, said Mr. Lugar had also asked whether any of the proposed verification mechanisms would require Congressional authority. The senator has expressed specific concern that verification measures not be allowed to lapse, Mr. Fisher said, according to the Times.

Keeping inspectors and an inspection regimen in place is difficult enough without the legal hurdles, as President Obama can attest to himself. In 2005,while still a junior senator from Illinois, Obama was part of an official delegation along with Senator Lugar and other Nunn-Lugar officials that were checking a weapons destruction plant in Perm, in Siberia.

Due to a lapse in communication, the official US delegation was detained by local police and held for three hours before the go-ahead was received from Moscow to allow the delegation to continue to Ukraine.

Provisional agreement may suffice meantime
If negotiators for Obama and Medvedev  reach agreement on a follow-up Start treaty that the two leaders can sign by December  5th, then the administration may seek what is called “provisional application,” putting the terms of the treaty into place – and keeping inspectors put –  on a temporary basis pending a Senate vote.

If the two fail to reach an agreement, however, then the Obama Administration may seek some from of an executive agreement with Moscow that would allow inspectors on both sides to stay in place and share information in a similar manner that the Start treaty facilitates, while negotiators continue to hammer out something more permanent.

Such an agreement, at least according to administration officials, would not require Senate approval, although lawmakers are demanding that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee be brought into the discussion. Administration officials told the Times they would consult with Senate leaders on the plan.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during talks in Moscow last week, according to US press reports. But the two sides have not yet agreed to any specific measures to continue verification efforts in the absence of a new treaty, these officials told reporters.

“We are working on options to provide transparency on strategic forces during the time before the new treaty enters into force,” a senior administration official told the Times Friday.

“But I think it’s premature to discuss specifics of any transparency options. Our focus is on getting the new treaty finished.”