The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1997, pp. 26-30.



After Helsinki,

the hard work

By Rodney W. Jones and Nikolai N. Sokov



Rodney W. Jones, who worked on START I and START II while serviing with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is president of Policy Architects International in Reston, Virginia, and senior adviser to the START II Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Nikolai N. Sokov, who worked on START I and II while serving with the Russian Foreign Ministry, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In 1990-91, Jones and Sokov were on opposite sides of the START negotiating table.

The chief goals of the Helsinki summit last March were to bridge the gap over NATO enlargement and to encourage ratification by the Russian Duma of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II. Ratification had stalled because of Russian opposition to NATO enlargement, suspicions about the U.S. anti-ballistic missile program, and a general feeling that START II was inequitable—imposing greater burdens on Russia than on the United States at a time when Russia’s economic problems were severe.

One way to break a deadlock through negotiation is to attack it head on, hoping that the benefits of an agreement will, in the end, outweigh its shortcomings.

The United States pursued that course with START II until the fall of 1996, when Defense Secretary William Perry went to Moscow to lobby the Duma, the key lower house of parliament. Perry’s chilly reception persuaded the administration that another strategy was needed. This time, the aim was to win over the Duma by loading the START II deal with additional elements that would change the balance between benefits and losses.

That was the Helsinki strategy. And in fact, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin did leave Helsinki with a large and fairly detailed package involving START II and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The summit also initiated discussion of START III and opened the way for a new treaty function—verifying the elimination of nuclear warheads.

The Helsinki balance sheet included an ABM demarcation agreement; a five-year extension of the START II timeline; setting a target date for START III discussions; and putting the elimination of nuclear warheads on the agenda.

But will these Helsinki accords succeed in jump-starting START II ratification in Moscow, and do they bring START III closer? Or have they merely kicked the problems down the road? The agreements to lengthen the START II timeline and clarify the ABM treaty will have to be blessed by the U.S. Senate and the Duma. That ties the fate of START II (and negotiations on START III) to the roller coaster of legislative and opposition politics in both countries. Helsinki fell short of what is needed to insure a positive Duma decision on START II. Both Helsinki packages—on missile defense, and START II and III—contain numerous problems. Resolving these successfully between U.S. and Russian administrations could take many months, quite apart from the process of winning first Duma and then Senate consent.

Even if the legislatures did not treat arms control as domestic political footballs, continued tension over NATO expansion imperils nuclear arms reductions. President Yeltsin’s May 27 signature of the Founding Act—defining Russian-NATO relations as NATO enlarges—is an important Russian compromise step, but this “politically binding” agreement has not assuaged the nationalists and communists in the Duma.

Missile defenses

Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin intended the Helsinki demarcation agreement on theater missile defense to remove the uncertainty that has clouded the future of the ABM Treaty. That uncertainty comes from the intensity and range of U.S. theater missile defense programs, as well as from pressure by U.S. conservatives to deploy a “thin” national ABM system by the year 2003.

For Russia, ending the uncertainty over where to draw the line between theater defense and strategic defense has been crucial to approval of START II. Russian military leaders have long contended that a national missile defense in the United States would undermine the deterrent value of Russian strategic forces, rendering Russia vulnerable to a theoretical first strike.

But the specific terms of the Helsinki demarcation agreement could still unravel as U.S. and Russian negotiators attempt to codify the details. The demarcation formula for “high-velocity” theater missile defense says that interceptors may only be tested against incoming targets traveling at speeds of 5 kilometers per second or less over ranges of 3,500 kilometers or less. An interceptor tested against an incoming target that exceeds those parameters would be considered an ABM system subject to ABM Treaty limits.

Russian defense experts believe that the Helsinki demarcation line is too high. Without collateral constraints on interceptors and sensors, they say, the United States could break out from a theater-defense technical base and construct a formidable nationwide ABM system. Because these experts are dissatisfied with the Helsinki agreement, Duma consent will be hard to get.

In the States, Newt Gingrich and other congressional conservatives have denounced the demarcation criteria as a “dumbing down” of the capabilities of American theater missile defense systems. Getting both Congress and the Duma on board with the same demarcation agreement may be harder than squaring a circle.

Official disagreements over what was intended by the demarcation accord surfaced immediately after Helsinki. The White House flatly declared, for instance, that all six U.S. theater missile defense programs would satisfy the demarcation criteria. The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, pointedly objected to this interpretation, insisting that any such determination must be made in the Standing Consultative Commission by all five parties, which now include Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, as well as the United States and Russia.

Influential Russians are also becoming concerned over growing evidence that the Clinton administration shares with the congressional mainstream the view that the ABM Treaty’s single-site restriction on ABM deployment is subject to renegotiation.

The START package

Legislative hurdles become even more daunting with the START II/START III package. It was designed to ease the financial burden of reductions in Russia and to meet the complaints of centrists in the Duma, such as Gen. Lev Rokhlin, chair of the Duma Defense Committee and a representative from the pro-government “Our Home is Russia” party, and his deputy, Alexei Arbatov from the liberal “Yabloko” party.

Even Russians who favor START II, such as Rokhlin and Arbatov, complained that it required Russia hastily—and at great expense—to eliminate hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, and then build hundreds of costly single-warhead ICBMs. Most of the latter would become expendable under START III.

Long before Helsinki, these centrists urged a framework agreement on START III. That, went the reasoning, would allow lower defense budgets and help Russia plan missile modernization in a more rational way. The original deadline of 2003 for START II implementation was economically unfeasible anyway, they said, and thus an extension of that period by at least four years seemed necessary.

Washington had refused to discuss the substance of START III, fearing it might lead the Duma to reopen core provisions of START II. But at Helsinki, Clinton and Yeltsin broke the logjam by agreeing to postpone final implementation of START II for five years, from the original deadline of January 1, 2003 to December 2007.

This would allow Russia to spread the cost of dismantling missiles and of converting or destroying silos over a much longer period, reducing the financial burden. The presidents also agreed on START III ceilings of 2,000 to 2,500 warheads (nearly one-third fewer than START II), to be achieved by December 2007, simultaneously with the new START II target timeline.

The combined effect of START II extension and START III ceilings is to remove the Russian need to produce several hundred new single-warhead missiles and this provides some relief to a cash-strapped Russian economy and defense budget.

The compromise may help to change the alignment of forces within the Duma and increase the chances of START II ratification. Until now, those Russians who wanted an extension of START II as well as a START III framework found themselves in alliance with those who advocated preserving MIRVed ICBMs, a position at odds with the central purpose of START II. Conceivably, the former group can now disengage from their conservative colleagues and join more liberal (though increasingly marginalized) factions that had supported START II from the beginning.

The catch is that formal START III negotiations can begin only after START II enters into force, which gives Russia an added reason to ratify the latter as soon as possible.

Transparency and deactivation

The Helsinki START package contains several innovations. For arms control, the most significant is the call for transparency regarding warhead inventories and warhead destruction. The narrow objective is to restrict the “upload” potential of MIRVed missiles that have been “downloaded.” (The START treaties permit downloading warheads from certain multiple-warhead missiles—which achieves lower ceilings without having to replace the missiles. Both sides have “breakout” potential, but the U.S. potential under START II would be considerably greater.)

But the broader objective of warhead transparency measures is to promote the elimination of warheads and to insure the irreversibility of disarmament. Otherwise, in a time of high tension, operational warheads might be reclaimed from storage or previously dismantled warheads might be reconstructed.

If the Clinton-Yeltsin warhead initiative ever becomes reality, it would mean, for the first time, real arms reductions—the elimination of weapons, not just delivery vehicles. Finding a way to do that is critical for both sides because as the ceilings get lower, the strategic balance becomes more sensitive to the potential for a one-sided breakout.

A more immediate task, however, is the deactivation of delivery vehicles slated for elimination under START II. As part of the START II extension agreement, the presidents agreed that while elimination of missiles could wait for another five years, they have to be deactivated by the end of 2003—one year later than the original elimination deadline. This plank was important to insure that the deadline extension would make it through the U.S. Senate; plain extension would have been a nonstarter.

Devils in the details

The Helsinki agreements represent a balancing act between national security interests of the two countries and— perhaps more important—between the agendas of politically relevant domestic actors, legislatures, and political parties. The post-Helsinki question is whether this delicate balance can survive the potentially destructive process of internal politics.

As already noted, the dispute over ABM demarcation is a possible showstopper. If solutions on other issues— including NATO enlargement—are found, the Duma might uphold the Helsinki ABM accord as an interim solution and kick it down the road for separate consideration after the Standing Consultative Commission works out the technical details. But the U.S. Senate could find the ABM limitations too restrictive. In that case, the Duma would almost surely take a harder stance.

Surprisingly, the biggest innovation of Helsinki—START III—has met with little applause in Moscow. Even General Rokhlin, a staunch proponent of achieving a START III framework as a precondition for ratification of START II, now says that a more detailed agreement specifying the structure of the post–START III forces and other key details must come first.

In fact, START II ratification might fail for any of a host of reasons. One major reason (or pretext) given by the Duma for postponing ratification was the failure of the Yeltsin government to provide the Duma with a detailed report on the costs and procedures of the treaty’s implementation, as well as long-range plans for the modernization of strategic forces. Repeated Duma requests for such a report have gone unanswered, despite Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s instruction to the Ministry of Defense to prepare one.

In Moscow, defense experts have also noted that Helsinki was silent on the START II deadline for “intermediate” reductions. Article I calls for these reductions to be completed within seven years after START I’s entry into force—that is, by December 2001. To insist on this intermediate deadline while extending the final deadline to December 2007 would not permit a smoothly sloped drawdown. Rather, it would require steep reductions in the first phase followed by a much more gradual second phase. Presumably that matter could be resolved through the same amendment process that extends the START II timeline.

Probably more contentious will be the debate over how “deactivation” of systems slated for elimination is to be accomplished. The current U.S. view is that “deactivation” requires the removal of warheads. Without such a proviso, the U.S. Senate may reject an amendment that postpones the reduction deadline.

Russia may object to warhead removal as the obligatory means of deactivation on cost and logistical grounds. Warheads from START I reductions, from missiles removed from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, and from tactical delivery systems—have already piled up in storage.

In 1992, when then–Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev proposed removing warheads from missiles as a confidence building measure, the Russian military allowed the initiative to die quietly because Russia lacked storage space. The situation has not improved much.

If Russia deems the removal of warheads to be too expensive or technologically complicated, it will propose alternatives. One being promoted by some Russian experts is the verifiable removal of nose cones from missiles. Arguably, that would take silo-based missiles off hair-trigger alert, because remounting the nose cones would take time and presumably would not go undetected.

Other methods being discussed include removing key electronic components or disconnecting power supplies. However, negotiating deactivation methods that the U.S. Senate would consider meaningful could consume time.

But the larger issue goes far beyond warhead removal. If the START process is to remain on track, the United States needs to achieve much more—for instance, the verifiable destruction of warheads or elements such as reentry shields.

Previous U.S.-Russian discussions on transparency offer grounds for cautious optimism: There is reason to believe that progress at the interagency level in the Russian government is possible. But stockpile transparency and verifiable warhead elimination generate strong opposition in the Duma. Indeed, no exchange of warhead-related information is possible until existing Russian laws are amended, and there is no sign of Duma readiness to do that. The complexity of U.S.-Russian negotiations in Geneva is likely to pale in comparison to all-Russian negotiations in Moscow.

Russian interest in negotiating irreversibility depends on whether it can help constrain the upload potential of American Minuteman and Trident II missiles. Further, the Helsinki agreements did not remove one particular avenue of uploading: the right of the United States to move heavy bombers from nuclear missions to conventional missions without physical conversion.

Another sticking point: long-range sea-launched cruise missiles, denuclearized by the Bush-Gorbachev initiatives in the fall of 1991. Only political commitments prevent their renuclearization. Clinton and Yeltsin acknowledged the problem at Helsinki, but left unsaid how it might be solved.

At Helsinki, Yeltsin and Clinton touched on yet another half-forgotten aspect of nuclear disarmament that has resurfaced in the context of NATO enlargement—tactical nuclear weapons. It is difficult to predict how this issue will play in the Duma during the START II ratification debate.

On the one hand, the eventual elimination of those weapons would serve to increase the survivability of Russia’s strategic weapons. Some Russian experts believe that between 50 and 60 percent of strategic weapons-related facilities are within reach of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the idea of deploying additional tactical nuclear weapons in response to NATO enlargement has become very popular in Russia and especially in the Duma.

Four scenarios

Nuclear dangers are being addressed ever more comprehensively in Washington and Moscow, but with flagging energy. Reduced tensions in the post–Cold War era may be partially responsible: Clearing the rubble of the great East-West confrontation has lost urgency. But this leads to the danger that new ambitions, new insecurities, and new animosities will crystallize. In turn, this may retard the phased reduction of nuclear arms, the integration of Europe, and the voluntary transformation of post-Soviet societies into industrial democracies.

Helsinki was intended to lay the groundwork for renewed vigor in nuclear arms control after a four-year lapse. Progress could still come, but it is almost certain to be painfully slow. NATO enlargement plans have reawakened elemental political and security concerns in Russia. Unless managed in a way that successfully balances Russian and European security interests, the NATO controversy will marginalize further U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control efforts. At least four broad scenarios can be imagined:

The first scenario is not the most likely. NATO expansion aroused a unified and emotionally intense Russian opposition. It generated a variety of hard-line “retaliatory” responses in 1996 and early 1997. If NATO expansion is to be accommodated by Russia, it must include a substantial way for Russia’s voice to be heard in NATO itself.

The Russia-NATO agreement (Founding Act), signed by President Yeltsin on May 27, accommodates some, but far from all, Russian concerns. Russia’s final reactions will depend heavily on the effectiveness of routine interaction in the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, and on successful negotiations of a second Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty that will limit those forces along “national lines.”

Failing achievement of a Russia-NATO reconciliation on expansion issues, the odds are very high that the best remaining alternative will be the second scenario—muddling through. This means trying to incrementally solidify important strategic arms reduction objectives, those already specified in START II, those yet to be detailed in a START II extension protocol, and those still to be negotiated in START III.

Major efforts may be required to prevent an unraveling of negotiated agreements as they go before both the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate. The greatest danger lies in amendments initiated by legislators setting conditions that must be accepted by the other side before an agreement can enter into force.

One side’s new conditions may be unacceptable to the other, triggering retaliatory moves in a destructive legislative spiral. The best we can hope for is that such unraveling can be avoided, and that the existing fabric of agreements can be cooperatively implemented, however fitfully.

The last of these scenarios—a slide toward renewed confrontation—is not likely, but it is no longer inconceivable. It is not clear that U.S.-Russian arms agreements negotiated in executive channels will be accepted without substantial revision—in either the Duma or the Senate.

If such pessimistic outcomes prevail, they will lead advocates of arms control to push for unilateral arms reductions or disarmament measures—the third scenario. While such measures are useful in the short run, they are politically untenable over the long haul. Arms control without formal, verifiable agreements can deal with common interests at certain historical moments. Unilateral approaches may also work if there is a deep reservoir of mutual trust. But they will not necessarily survive a protracted period of acrimony.

If START II is not ratified, Russia would almost certainly conduct future reductions the way it sees fit. It would probably retain some of its MIRVed missiles—the SS-19 and SS-24 ICBMs, as well as the heavy SS-18s permitted by START I. It is also possible that some portion of the new generation Topol-M (SS-25 follow-on) ICBMs would be MIRVed as well, each equipped (as some Russian experts have suggested) with three warheads.

This approach to arms reduction would not fare well with the U.S. Senate. It might serve as an additional stimulus for an American national missile defense program. In turn, that would bring a Russian response to overcome the presumed U.S. edge in missile defense. In other words, if START II fails, it would be difficult to put things back on track.

To discard illusions is not to accept defeat. The Helsinki accords will be hard to implement, but they did set new arms control objectives. While Duma hardliners reacted sourly to Yeltsin’s general performance at Helsinki, and Duma defense specialists objected to the demarcation accord, no Duma leaders raised an outcry against the Helsinki innovations in START II and START III. Not surprisingly, however, some advocate that the sides leapfrog over START II to START III. Russian leadership changes may also strengthen the administration’s influence with the Duma on START II. Yeltsin’s sudden May 23 replacement of Defense Minister Igor Rodionov with Gen. Igor Sergeyev, commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, brings to the forefront an influential START II proponent that even conservatives in the Duma cannot dismiss.

For the first time, there is an outline for START III. For the first time, commitments have been made to eliminate nuclear warheads. Further, the Helsinki accords hint at negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles, which have been excluded from existing treaties. Above all, they point to a schedule for continued strategic arms reduction and elimination as a critical task for the two big nuclear powers.

Clarifying and codifying the new objectives may reassure Russia of U.S. adherence to the ABM Treaty, clear the path to START II ratification, and put a mutually attractive START III agreement in place before the turn of the century. But domestic political hurdles remain on both sides. Hard work lies ahead.n

Summit highlights