Progress will be neither easy nor fast in the disarmament agenda, given the clashing interpretations the treaty has been given in the U.S. and Russian ratification documents. Some differences may even derail the implementation of the New START.

On January 26, the Federation Council, Upper House of the Russian Parliament, endorsed the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty Moscow and Washington signed in April 2010. The U.S. Senate approved the pact last month. Over the next seven years the U.S. and Russia are to reduce the number of warheads they deploy on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles from 2,200 to 1,550, a reduction of about 30 per cent from the levels agreed upon in the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

The New START has been hailed as a landmark pact that revives the process of disarmament stalled in recent years. Experts in both countries believe that the U.S. and Russia could pursue much deeper cuts in the next round of negotiations without weakening either nation's ability to deter a nuclear attack on its territory. In a joint study published in the September/October issue of the Foreign Affairs, U.S. and Russian military experts said it would be safe for the two nuclear powers to cap their arsenal at 1,000 warheads before they ask other nations to join in reductions.

Washington and Moscow have indeed vowed to carry forward the disarmament agenda, but progress will be neither easy nor fast, given the clashing interpretations the treaty has been given in the U.S. and Russian ratification documents. Moreover, some differences are so deep that they may even derail the implementation of the New START.

The U.S. Senate adopted a 30-page ratification resolution that gave its reading of the treaty and set conditions for implementation. Some of them enraged Moscow. A three-line initial draft bill on the New START ratification prepared by the State Duma, Lower House of the Russian Parliament, swelled into a 10-page document and two separate declarations that countered point by point the U.S. Senate amendments, which “distort the sense of the treaty,” according to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The main disagreement is over missile defence. Russia has strongly rejected the U.S. Senate's claim that “the New START Treaty does not impose any limitations on the deployment of missile defences” and that the preamble, which asserts the linkage between offensive and defensive strategic weapons, “does not impose a legal obligation on the Parties.”

The ratification law approved by the Russian Parliament reaffirms the linkage as also the country's right to withdraw from the New START if the U.S. or “any other state or a group of states” (read the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) deploys missile defences “capable of substantially reducing the effectiveness of Russia's strategic nuclear forces.”

The risk that the U.S. missile defence plans may actually wreck the New START may not be very big, as the treaty is to be fully implemented by 2017, whereas the U.S., according to President Barack Obama's Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defences in Europe, will not begin to deploy SM-3 interceptors capable of shooting down Russian long-range missiles till 2018. But if the U.S. acts on its plans to build a global missile shield, Russia will most likely refuse to slash its nuclear arsenals beyond the New START level.

“Either we reach agreement on ballistic missile defence … or another round of the arms race will take place,” Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said in his state-of-the-nation address last November.

Russia and NATO, at a landmark summit in Lisbon in November, agreed to discuss ways of joining their efforts at building a common missile shield in Europe and to prepare “a comprehensive Joint Analysis of the future framework for missile defence cooperation” by June 2011. However, Russians fear this “cooperation” pledge may be little more than another U.S. ruse to allay European concerns that a unilateral missile shield would antagonise Russia. Earlier this month, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen ruled out a joint missile defence system with Russia, saying the alliance favoured building “two independent but coordinated systems” that would share information. Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin effectively rejected this information-sharing plan as it would be “aimed at deterring Russia's nuclear potential under the guise of protection against Iranian missiles.” Moscow has proposed developing an integral European ballistic missile defence belt divided into the Russian and NATO sectors of responsibility.

As the Russian Parliament gathered to ratify the New START, Mr. Medvedev warned the U.S. against trying to hoodwink Russia over missile defences.

“We have two options,” he said, “Either we … agree with NATO on designing an integrated system of anti-missile defence or, if we fail to reach agreement, we will subsequently be forced to make an entire series of unpleasant decisions on the deployment of an offensive nuclear missile group.”

Mr. Medvedev's warning apparently refers to Russia's threats to station short-range nuclear-tipped missiles along NATO borders and deploy its newest RS-24 “Yars” long-range missiles, whose multiple warheads can streak to targets at an altitude of less than 100 km, which puts them out of reach of U.S. missile interceptors. This could trigger a new arms race.

Another focal point of disagreement is the New START's provision concerning non-nuclear strategic weapons such as “hypersonic manoeuvrable vehicles” and space-based weapons. The U.S. Senate claimed that the New START does not affect U.S. plans to create a global strike capability using strategic delivery vehicles equipped with non-nuclear warheads. “Nothing in the New START Treaty prohibits deployments of strategic-range non-nuclear weapon systems,” the ratification resolution stated.

This claim is a glaring overstatement. The New START does impose restrictions on non-nuclear strategic weapons if only because it makes no distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear warheads installed on strategic missiles. The limit of 1,550 warheads allowed for either side under the treaty includes both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. This is what makes the New START different from previous Russian-American pacts and a major success for Russian diplomacy in the light of the U.S.' current focus on non-nuclear strategic systems.

In a further constraint on the development of new strategic systems, the New START says such systems would be discussed by a Bilateral Consultative Commission “before this new kind of offensive weapons is deployed.” The Russian Parliament said that should the U.S. ignore this provision and go ahead with deploying new strategic weapons, Russia could walk away from the New START.

The U.S. and Russian legislators also set forth contrasting positions on further arms reductions. The U.S. Senate, in its ratification resolution, committed the President to starting negotiations with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons within a year of the New START going into effect. Even though neither side has disclosed its stockpiles of tactical nukes, Russia is believed to have 2,050 weapons and the U.S. about 500, half of them deployed in Europe.

The U.S. idea of discussing tactical nuclear weapons in isolation from other security issues is a non-starter for Moscow. The U.S. tactical nukes in Europe have a strategic dimension for Russia as it would take an F/A-18 Hornet fighter a mere 15 minutes to deliver a handful of them to Central Russia. The Russian Parliament urged the U.S. to remove its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe to its own territory and dismantle the infrastructure for their re-deployment. Russia has made it clear any future talks on tactical nukes must be linked with NATO's overwhelming superiority in conventional forces in Europe.

Speaking at the ratification debate in the Russian Parliament, Mr. Lavrov said that post-START negotiations must address all factors affecting strategic stability — the U.S. plans to develop non-nuclear strategic weapons, deploy space-based arms, and build a global missile shield as well as NATO's superiority in conventional weapons in Europe.

“Follow-up talks can be launched only if all these circumstances are factored in in their totality and once we are satisfied that the Americans are implementing the New START,” Mr. Lavrov told Russian legislators during the debate.

Widely differing interpretations of the New START and deep suspicions over Washington's defence plans make Moscow extremely cautious in embarking on further arms reductions talks.

“I am convinced that before talking about any further steps in the sphere of nuclear disarmament it is necessary to fulfil the new START agreement,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters.

Only “then will be it be clear what additional steps should be taken to strengthen global security and global stability,” Russia's top diplomat added.

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