Nuclear treaty goes easy on Russia: analysts
The new Russia-US nuclear arms pact may have been hailed as historic but analysts said that all Moscow really has to do is phase out Soviet-era missiles and warheads that are already out of date.
The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was ratified by the US Senate on Wednesday after a passionate months-long debate and given initial approval by Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, two days later.
It will face two more hearings in Russia and almost certainly enter into force within the next few months.
The first nuclear pact in two decades has been feted as vital to global security because it reduces old warhead ceilings by an impressive 30 percent and sets a streamlined new inspection procedure designed to eliminate cheating.
The new START limits each side to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed long-range missiles -- including those fired from submarines -- and heavy bombers.
The two sides may also have up to 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers and bombers.
But analysts said that Russia's real problem was that even these lower missile and launcher ceilings were too high for the country to keep pace with the United States.
Soviet-era missiles such as the Saber SS-22 are rapidly approaching their expiry date and technical specifications mean the weapon has no purpose if its nuclear warheads are taken out of commission.
"START is not the problem here," said the respected military commentator Alexander Golts. "The problem is that Russia has to retire more delivery vehicles because of 'old age' than it has the funds to produce."
The United States had 2,019 more warheads deployed on its launchers and bombers than Russia under START data reported by the US State Department in July 2009.
Independent estimates from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said that in late 2009 the United States in fact had 2,200 "operational" nuclear warheads and 2,500 more warheads in reserve that could be activated if necessary.
Russia on the other hand was believed to have had a total of 2,600 operational long-range warheads covered by START.
But the required phase-out of old missiles is not the only thing working in Russia's favour. New START counting rules will also allow it to attribute just one warhead per bomber even if it carries more -- a point insisted on by Moscow during the treaty negotiations.
National Defence magazine editor Igor Korotchenko told the RIA Novosti news agency that Russia was now likely to keep just 390 missiles and bombers as it looks to save money ahead of a new round of strategic reductions in 2020.
And Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov saw nothing but the treaty's advantages while defending it in parliament Friday.
"We will not have to make any cuts to our strategic offensive weapons," Serdyukov told sceptical lawmakers from the Communist opposition. "But the Americans -- they will indeed have to make some cuts," said Serdyukov.
"Serdyukov is right," said Moscow's Centre for Disarmament Director Anatoly Dyakov. "Russia has already met its launcher obligations. It only has 560 of those.
"We have more warheads. But if you take the old SS-20s out of commission -- they each have 10 warheads and have been in service 10 years past their expiration -- then you really do not need to take any additional measures," said Dyakov.
The feared SS-20 was eliminated under a landmark 1987 disarmament agreement but the Centre for Defence Information said that Russia now had 120 modified SS-N-20 missiles deployed on its submarines.
The maths also works in Russia's favour because START focuses exclusively on "strategic" nuclear weapons that are designed to destroy large populations or damage the enemy's ability to wage war.
These missiles are for the most part fired over great distances and have been the US weapon of choice during the Cold War.
The United States thus has a strategic superiority over Russia -- which in turn enjoys an advantage in "tactical" weapons used in smaller campaigns around its periphery.
Analysts said that tactical missiles and warheads will likely be the subject of the next round of reductions insisted upon by the United States.
"I am afraid that this is something Russia will not be able to avoid," the upper house of parliament's foreign affairs committee chairman Mikhail Margelov told Moscow Echo radio.
But he added: "We should definitely support START."
© 2010 AFP