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Will Washington and Moscow START Over?

Russia has suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and it is threatening to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, or INF. What is the status of yet another arms control accord between the United States and Russia -- the treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, commonly known as START I?

The START I treaty was negotiated in the 1980s, signed by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, and came into force in 1994. It was the first treaty requiring the elimination of U.S. and Soviet - - now Russian - - nuclear weapons systems. It placed a limit of 6,000 strategic, or long-range, nuclear warheads on each side. And it limited the number of strategic delivery systems - - such as bombers, land-based and submarine-based missiles - - to 1,600 each.

Wade Boese from the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says the treaty also had stringent verification measures. "The treaty has an enduring value because it has specific counting rules and mechanisms by which the two sides gain access and information about the other side's forces, such as where they are deployed and how many forces are located where," says Boese. "So it remains an important tool for allowing both sides to have confidence that the other is not secretly building up forces that could jeopardize the other. It has a very extensive on-site inspection regime and data exchange mechanism. So again, this is another treaty that has helped foster transparency and trust between former adversaries."

Evolving Arms Control

Washington and Moscow have abided by the START I provisions. Michael Levi, an arms control expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that in 2002, the two sides signed a new agreement - - the Moscow Treaty, also known as the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reduction, or SORT.

Levi says that pact is much simpler than the START I treaty and calls for even deeper cuts in long-range nuclear missile arsenals. "It requires a reduction on both sides to between roughly 1,700 and 2,200 deployed nuclear weapons, but does not require the destruction, for example, of warheads that are removed from weapons and put in storage. And it also does not contain any kind of verification provisions for making sure that the sides comply."

What's Next?

The START I treaty expires in December 2009, unless Washington and Moscow agree to extend it for another five-year period. Officials in both capitals have stressed they will continue discussions on a post-START arrangement. But Steve Andreasen, an arms control expert who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, says the United States and Russia are indicating that the START I treaty, as it exists today, will not be extended.

"Having said that, what will come in its place? That is, what will be the regime that is a follow-on to that agreement is still very much an open issue. The United States appears to be prepared to simply allow for a non-legally binding set of transparency and confidence building measures. And Russia appears to be pressing for a more robust set of measures and also possibly a lower limit on strategic forces and to make that limitation legally binding," says Andreasen. "So one of the tricky issues for the Bush administration here is that in 2002 it agreed to a treaty -- that is the Moscow Treaty -- but there was no verification that went with it. And it made the point that the START I treaty would be used to verify the Moscow Treaty. So one issue is: What happens to verification of the Moscow Treaty if the START treaty is allowed to expire in 2009?"

As U.S. and Russian officials discuss the fate of START I, experts such as Wade Boese from the Arms Control Association say Moscow continues to modernize its long-range missile force. "There is a new submarine-launched ballistic missile -- the Bulava -- which they are working on. And there is this Topol-M system, which they are trying to develop or deploy in both a silo-based and a road-mobile version. And they would like to add multiple warheads to that," says Boese. "There is also a discussion about deployment of some kind of new hypersonic cruise missile type thing or re-entry vehicle that will help them evade missile defense systems. It has supposedly been tested a few times, but it really remains to be seen how far along that is and how close it actually is to potential deployment."

Russia's Strategy

Jason Lyall, a Russia expert at Princeton University, says Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing a two-pronged strategy when it comes to arms control. "On the one hand, you get legally-binding agreements to lower the U.S. arsenal because one thing that Putin does not want to get into is an arms race. They are destabilizing, but they are also very expensive. So the idea is, if you can drive down to parity at a low level -- a thousand or 2,000 nuclear weapons -- you can entirely modernize the Russian stocks, which they are now slowly doing -- 30-to-35 missiles a year being produced. And you can slowly build up the Russian arsenal by replacing the older weapons systems with modernized or new weapons systems by keeping a lid on the costs involved. So one route is to go with the treaties, while the other is actually to slowly replace your arsenal with much more modern weapons systems."

Many experts do not believe that Presidents Bush and Putin will be able to reach an agreement on extending the START I treaty. They say if Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin fail to reach an accord, it will be up to two new leaders to try and bridge differences, since both men will be out of office when START I expires in 2009.