Trust, but don’t verify


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The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) will expire tomorrow—December 5th, 2009.  Expiring along with it is the decades-old inspection and verification regime, which gave both US and Russian anaylsts a high degree of certainty about the capabilities and disposition of each others’ nuclear forces.

US and Russian negotiators are, apparently, working on a bridging arrangement until a new treaty can be drafted, but it’s worth remembering that the old treaty took over a year (429 days) to ratify after it was submitted to the Senate on July 31st, 1991.  There will be a lengthy gap between the expiry of START I and the ratification of any new follow-on treaty.

The expiring START treaty, signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush in 1991, required each country to cut its nuclear warheads by at least one-fourth, to about 6,000, and to implement procedures for verifying that each side was sticking to the agreement.

The legal basis for the procedures, including inspections of nuclear facilities, also will expire Friday. Both sides are expected to allow each other to continue them until a new deal is in place.

The State Department said this week that it believes the two sides can keep some of the verification procedures in place through an informal political agreement that is not legally binding.

Meanwhile, negotiators still are grappling over verification procedures for the new treaty, which have become the final sticking point preventing a deal.

The Obama administration would welcome a quick conclusion to demonstrate an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations and to gain momentum for other arms control and nonproliferation goals. Washington also is looking for cooperation on issues including reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, Russia has fewer incentives for an immediate deal.

— Butler, Desmond.  “Few concerns as US-Russian nuclear treaty expires.” Associated Press, 04 December 2009. [Emphasis mine.]

It will probably be easier for the United States to continue as-is without a formal agreement in place; Russia on the other hand has laws (the Law on State Secrets) that appear to require an international treaty in order to permit the declassification and release of secret data to other nations.  A decent high-level examination of the potential hurdles on the Russian side can be found in a series of posts (1, 2, 3 and 4) at the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces blog, written by Pavel L. Podvig, Russian defence analyst and author of a number of books on Russian nuclear forces.

IRONY ALERT: It is also worth remembering that President Barack Obama will formally receive the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10th, 2009.

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