Russian arms officials will arrive in the United States on Monday to conduct an inspection of U.S. strategic nuclear facilities amid heightened tensions over Moscow’s military incursion into Ukraine and a U.S. ultimatum to withdraw the forces.
Additionally, a team of Russian arms inspectors are set to arrive in San Francisco for the treaty-permitted inspection that will take place days after Moscow threatened to cancel similar U.S. inspections in Russia.
The go-ahead for the inspection, which is being kept officially secret under rules outlined in the 2010 New START treaty, reflects the administration’s national security priority of supporting arms control treaties despite recent disclosures that Russia has failed to comply with several nuclear and military accords.
Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported March 8 that the Defense Ministry is considering a ban on U.S. nuclear inspections under the New START treaty if the administration suspends military cooperation with Russia over the Ukraine invasion.
A State Department spokesman had no immediate comment.
Allowing the arms inspection also appears to undermine Secretary of State John Kerry’s ultimatum to Moscow last week that it will face sanctions if Russian troops are not pulled back from Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern borders. Kerry told a Senate hearing Thursday that unless there is progress on the troop removal, "there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday."
Ukrainians in Crimea, where Russian troops were flown in over the past several weeks, voted Sunday on whether to align with Russia or remain an autonomous region under the Ukrainian government.
On the threat to cancel U.S. inspections, a senior administration official told the Washington Free Beacon that the administration welcomed a recent statement by Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov that Moscow will abide by New START despite the Ukraine crisis.
"Implementation of inspection activities under arms control agreements and confidence- and security-building mechanisms provides mutual predictability and promotes strategic stability," the official said, adding that in the past, treaty implementation "has proceeded regardless of other political situations, and this practice should continue."
However, Thomas Moore, a former professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who specialized in arms treaties, said START inspections and all treaty compliance, while legally required, should be suspended due to the crisis.
"There would be minimal harm to suspending New START until this all cools down, both inspections but more particularly any reductions," Moore said in an email. "We don’t have to meet 1,550 deployed warheads until February 2018—long after Obama is gone and Putin may still be around."
The New START accord "should just be allowed to tick away into expiration, with forces, if not modern, then at least stable," Moore said. "New START inspections haven’t been able to stop this crisis, and they won’t ever be able to do so."
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction, and arms control, told National Journal on Wednesday: "We see no reason that the tensions that exist over Ukraine should in any way obstruct the path toward fulfilling the commitments that we have made with the Russians to reduce nuclear weapons on both sides."
However, Sherwood-Randall said Russian military deployments to Crimea violate the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. That accord coaxed Ukraine into giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in exchange for Moscow’s promise to respect Ukrainian sovereignty.
"We are calling on Russia to abide by that commitment and the world is quite united in its expression of strong disapproval of the Russian current occupation of Crimea," she said.
State Department and White House officials declined to provide details on the locations to be visited by the Russian nuclear inspectors this week.
The inspection is Russia’s second U.S. on-site inspection this year under New START. The 2010 treaty permits each country to conduct 18 on-site inspections per year, covering all three legs of the U.S. strategic triad—land-based missile bases, submarine-based missile facilities, and strategic bomber bases.
A U.S. official familiar with the visit said the Russians will be escorted during the inspection by a group of U.S. officials and will be given unfettered access to treaty-covered nuclear sites.
Nuclear weapons sites are spread out at scores of facilities in the United States. ICBMs are based in Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Submarine bases are in Washington and Georgia, and bomber bases are located in Louisiana and Missouri.
The New START treaty limits each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers.
Two types of arms inspections are allowed under the treaty. Type I inspections cover reviews of operational systems and non-deployed systems. Type II inspections are limited to non-operational strategic weapons and forces, including bombers and warheads in storage.
So far this year, Russia has conducted one Type II inspection and no Type I inspections, according to the State Department’s website.
The treaty permits inspections to confirm numbers of warheads on missiles, non-deployed launchers, and weapons on bombers, and to confirm eliminations of weapons or facilities.
In response to the Russian threat to freeze inspections, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week that "we would take very seriously and strongly discourage any Russian decision to cease implementation of its legally binding arms control treaty obligations and other military transparency commitments."
Russia currently appears in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces by developing a new medium-range cruise missile and for testing long-range missiles to INF ranges. U.S. officials have said there also are questions about Russian compliance with New START.
For example, Moscow failed to provide the required 14-day advance notification for large-scale strategic bomber exercises in late June 2012 in the Russian arctic. The exercises included practice runs against U.S. missile defense facilities in Alaska.
Obama last week ordered financial and visa sanctions on Russian officials linked to the military action against Ukraine.
Moore, the former Senate arms control professional, noted that Russia threatened to suspend its inspections under New START but said "there are no other U.S. boots on the ground left in Russia to suspend."
Also, the inspections do nothing to address Russian INF treaty violations or Conventional Forces in Europe treaty breaches, he said.
However, the on-site Russian inspections are "all we have" to check on Russian strategic forces under the treaty and therefore the administration is unlikely to suspend them.
"There’s plenty of reasons for us to leave START inspections," Moore said. "They’re fewer inspections than under START I; of less value; and we’ve had no access to Russian telemetric data on anything other than old Russian missiles used mainly for satellite launches under New START. It’s a Potemkin treaty; a useful diversion away from what matters."
Work by the military began in February for the removal of silo launch facility components for 50 Minuteman III missiles deactivated in 2008 at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Under New START, 103 silos at Malmstrom, 50 at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, and three test silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, must be dismantled by February 2018.
Russian inspectors visited Vandenberg in August for a secret inspection, raising intelligence-gathering concerns among U.S. officials. The base is the home to U.S. long-range missile defense interceptors—a known intelligence target for Russia.
Another former Senate Foreign Relations Committee professional staffer, David S. Sullivan, said the Soviet Union and now Russia have a long history of cheating on every arms treaty.
"From 1989 through 1992, former Soviet leaders actually admitted some of their most important arms control treaty violations," said Sullivan, a specialist in treaty verification issues. "The U.S. should be publicly challenging their current noncompliance, rather than inviting Russians to inspect our always scrupulous, congressionally guaranteed, full compliance with arms treaties."