Despite the unfolding US presidential campaign and the practical implications of Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency, both Russia and the US could see significant achievements in arms control.
Reports from the last two months indicate that the US and Russia are willing to embark on a pragmatic discourse regarding nonstrategic or tactical nuclear warheads (low-range nuclear weapons for use in tactical military operations) and non-deployed nuclear weapons (reserve weapons kept in storage) within a bilateral arms control framework. If things go well, arms control regulations could be enhanced significantly.
In February 2011, the New START Treaty entered into force. The treaty requires each side to reduce the deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1550, down from 2200 set by the original treaty. The new treaty also capped fielded strategic warhead delivery systems at 700, with the option of 100 additional systems in reserve.
The new agreement also retained some elements of the old verification mechanism. However, the treaty introduces a new type of inspection: both Russia and the US have the right to annually undertake no less than 18 complex audits. These new on-site inspections allow both sides to confirm the actual number of warheads on randomly selected missiles.
After concluding the New START Treaty, Obama indicated that he was willing include additional weapon types in the regulatory framework: tactical and non-deployed nukes. The inclusion of these kinds of weapons would be a significant step in arms control.
There is a general consensus in Washington and Moscow that there is room for one last round of nuclear reduction in a solely bilateral US-Russia setting before a more inclusive multilateral framework must be defined. As for extending the bilateral relationship, the current single-track approach could be replaced by a two-track approach.
The first track would be reductions below the current ceiling of 1550 nukes and 700 delivery systems; the second track would address non-deployed and tactical nuclear weapons. However, there is one major obstacle for including tactical nuclear weapons in the framework: the Americans and Russians categorize the weapons differently. Therefore, a single classification must be introduced.
There is also general disagreement between Moscow and Washington over Obama's plan for the European pillar of the US missile shield program. Russia views the development as a threat to the utility of its own nuclear forces. A lack of trust has not been overcome since Russia's heated threat last November to withdraw from the New START Treaty over the matter. The Kremlin also prefers legal guarantees while the US Senate favors simple political assurance. Both sides must address this tension over missile defense before more bilateral progress can be made.
Another complication is the capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles within twenty minutes. According to disarmament experts, this twenty-minute timeframe is too short for both parties to evaluate the actual state of affairs. The launch time could be lengthened in order to give decision-makers additional time to evaluate the situation should the necessity ever arise.
Beside the military aspects, there is also a civlian side to US-Russia relations involving nuclear technology. There are plans to implement a decade-long $2.8 billion uranium trade deal that aims to facilitate the US purchase of uranium until 2022. This deal is a follow-up to the landmark 1993 Megaton to Megawatts Agreement whereby Moscow committed tiself to convert 500 tons of weapon-grade unraium into low-enriched nuclear fuel that was then traded to US energy companies. Such pragmatic civlian and economic cooperation could help in the realm of bilateral security affairs.
Mutual cuts in the US and Russian nuclear aresnals would be a long-term boost to the fiscal health of both parties. Budgetary woes are hitting both Russia and the US. If Obama convinces the nation to reduce the US arsenal, then Russian hardliners would have one less argument for oppsoing a similar reduction by the Kremlin.
In the end, 2012 does not have to be a wasted year. The door is open for both sides to move toward a more transparent and reliable mode of arms control. But it remains to be seen if the United States and Russia reinforce their mutual interests or instead focus on those issues beneficial only to themselves.
Tomas A. Nagy is a Research Fellow at the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI).