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A tattered treaty

Print edition : Jun 08, 2002 T+T-

THE bare calculus of the treaty between Russia and the United States, to reduce mutually strategic nuclear warheads to almost a third of currently deployed levels, seems fairly heartening. From 6,000 strategic warheads apiece, the erstwhile adversaries of the Cold War have agreed to slash the number of weapons they have in active deployment to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. This deal was consummated at the summit meeting between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Cursory on details and much shorter than an average newspaper article, the treaty is a stark contrast to preceding arms control agreements, which ran to hundreds of pages. It lacks a time-table for decommissioning of weapons, is devoid of a verification procedure and is conceptually vacuous on the crucial question of how a warhead is to be identified and accounted for.

The treaty is then little more than a gentlemen's agreement between two Presidents. It has been committed to paper and will soon be submitted for ratification in accordance with constitutional procedures in the two countries, only because Putin insisted on a formal treaty. As far as Bush is concerned, personal bonding has always been considered a better alternative to hard bargaining. And the value attached to the treaty by the U.S. was summed up by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in recent testimony to a committee of the U.S. Senate: "We didn't need this treaty, in a sense. I mean, the President announced he was going to go down to 1,700 to 2,000 (warheads), regardless of what the Russians did. And then Mr. Putin announced that he was going to do that. The agreement is useful, I suppose. But we are going to do what we were going to do, regardless."

These facts seem to suggest that the treaty on strategic offensive reductions is the happy consequence of the benign intentions that both nuclear superpowers happened coincidentally to profess at roughly the same time. That would be perhaps the best construction that could be placed upon it. A little attention to the arithmetic and the finer points would show that the treaty in fact sets global disarmament back even from the sluggish trajectory it was on.

According to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I) signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1991, both sides were obliged to cut strategic warhead deployments to 6,000 within seven years of "entry into force". That milestone was officially certified as reached on December 5 last year. The Bush-Putin treaty uses this benchmark in computing the planned reductions for the next decade, disregarding the fact that far more reasonable proposals were mooted in between.

START-II, which was signed between President George Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993, proposed that strategic warhead deployments be reduced to a range between 3,000 and 3,500 by 2007. In 1997, Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton agreed on a framework for START-III, which would limit strategic warheads to between 2,000 and 2,500 for each side. Negotiations on START-III were to begin after its predecessor treaty entered into force. But with the strategic dialogue getting entangled in a variety of other concerns - such as the U.S.' proposal to begin research on a National Missile Defence (NMD) system and its insistence on expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to the doorsteps of Russia - the Duma delayed ratification of START-II till 2000. Its entry into force now appears a virtual impossibility. With this, the START-III framework, which envisaged a reduction of strategic arms roughly similar to that proposed by the Bush-Putin treaty, also stands abandoned.

This effectively means a slowing of the momentum for nuclear disarmament. START-III proposed to effect its reductions by 2007, a clear five years ahead of the deadline fixed in the recent treaty. Again in qualitative terms, the Moscow treaty represents a significant regress, since the agreed START-III framework specifically spoke of "measures relating to the transparency of strategic nuclear warhead inventories and the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads", with the objective of promoting "the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads".

The Moscow treaty, which has not lent itself yet to any convenient shorthand because it is outside the framework of all preceding disarmament negotiations, says nothing about transparency or irreversibility. In fact, its central point is the flexibility it gives the parties to reconstitute nuclear arsenals at short notice. Till late April, in fact, negotiations were deadlocked between Russia's insistence on an irreversible schedule and the U.S.' preference for flexibility. When agreement was reached, it was entirely on U.S. terms.

Russia argued that with the dismantling of warheads, a verifiable schedule of destroying delivery vehicles, that is, intercontinental missiles, submarines and heavy bombers, should also be agreed upon. In addition, it argued that warheads should be accounted for in terms of the maximum capacity of each type of delivery vehicle and not in terms of actual operational deployment. In both respects the Russian proposals were consistent with the norms followed under the START process.

The U.S., in contrast, sought to take delivery vehicles out of the accounting procedures. And rather than reckon the maximum capacity of each kind of delivery vehicle, the U.S. proposed that only operational warheads should be covered by reduction commitments. The purpose was to maintain as large a number of warheads in reserve, to be deployed at short notice on available delivery vehicles.

SHORTLY after the May 13 announcement of a deal by Bush, an official spokesman of the White House spelt out the parameters. Questioned specifically on the distinction between dismantling a weapon and destroying it, he chose to be economical with the truth: "We have agreed... that some warheads will be dismantled and some will be stored. Now, if you go back and look at the history of arms control agreements, for example, START-II, we would have - each side would have taken its reductions largely in the form of what is called downloading, or removal of warheads from operational missiles and having those warheads placed in storage. So this is not a new departure... If START-II was the breakthrough which it was announced to be - and it was - then we are following the same rules."

The plain fact is that START imposed limits on both warheads and delivery vehicles. START-I, for instance, limited both parties to 6,000 warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles. As of December 5 last year, the U.S. in reporting full compliance accounted for 5,949 warheads and 1,238 delivery vehicles. Russia reported a deployment of 5,858 warheads on 1,198 delivery vehicles.

The Moscow treaty only specifies a limit for deployed strategic warheads on the target date of December 31, 2012. It specifies no schedule, which means that the entire reduction could, for instance, be effected in the very last year of the treaty's operation. The warheads removed from delivery systems could then be stored in reserve, ready to be put in place in any kind of contingency. Obviously, it would take a leap of faith to buy the proposition that this amounts to any kind of a substantive disarmament commitment.

In essence, the function of the Moscow treaty then is very limited - to bring the disarmament dialogue with Russia in line with the parameters laid down in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that was completed by the U.S. early this year. It is in a sense an imposition of a unilaterally determined agenda on the U.S.' principal potential nuclear adversary. Outlined in its bare details by a U.S. Defence Department briefing in January, the NPR was leaked in more substantive fashion to the media in March.

The proposal to change the calculus of warheads accounting from delivery vehicle capacities to actual operational deployments was mooted in the NPR. Further, it laid out a schedule for reductions in two stages. Of these the first stage would cut the number of operational warheads to 3,800 by 2007, above even START-II levels. Considering that the missile systems fielded by the U.S. can each carry between three and 10 warheads, this target could be met by merely decoupling a number of warheads from active missiles. As U.S. Under Secretary of Defence Douglas Feith then put it, this would permit the reconstitution of full capacity within "weeks or months".

The NPR also outlined a new approach to nuclear security, signalling the abandonment of old "threat-based" perceptions to a "capabilities-based" doctrine. The nuclear capabilities required were not to be reckoned in country-specific terms, but in terms of the power to respond to "multiple contingencies and new threats in a changing environment".

In operational terms, this meant that the combine of air, sea and land-based nuclear offensive capabilities - or the "triad" as it was called - was to be replaced by a distinct, almost metaphysical, new conception. The "New Triad", as the NPR put it, was to be made up, first, of all three elements of the older variant, plus conventional strike capabilities. Secondly, it was to include the NMD. And the final component was to be a massively revamped and "responsive" defence infrastructure, including facilities for the production of nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration's commitment to NMD and its contempt for the nuclear test ban treaty have never been secret. For obvious reasons, then, it is the first component of the "new triad" that has caused the greatest concern. Effectively, by bringing nuclear and conventional weapons to the same plane in military doctrine, the U.S. is signalling that it has breached a major moral threshold. Quite apart from its deterrent function, the nuclear weapon is now being portrayed as a credible instrument of war.

Efforts by Bush administration officials to clarify that the NPR does not make the use of nuclear weapons any more likely than in the past, have carried little credibility against a background of aggressive U.S. actions in various global fora. At the first Preparatory Committee (PrepComm) for the 2005 Review Conference of the NPT, the U.S. set its face against the declaration that was agreed by consensus at the 2000 Review Conference. In particular, it refused to abide by the norm that nuclear weapons states would be obliged to report to the Review Conference on the steps that they had taken to fulfil their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT.

Another act in the drama is expected to unfold on June 13, when the U.S., after serving out a six-month-long notice period, formally withdraws from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This would represent, along with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and START-II, a remarkable triad of nuclear disarmament treaties that have been killed by U.S. unilateralism. And for all that has been lost, the vacuous and badly tattered Moscow treaty is rather poor recompense.