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Verifiable Elimination of Nuclear Warheads: What Lies Behind Russian Proposals?

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Updated May 15, 2002

A number of recent official statements made by Russian politicians in view of the on-going Russian-American talks on the next phase of the strategic offensive arms reductions can be interpreted as Moscow's intent and readiness for negotiations with Washington over verifiable elimination of reduced warheads.

Particularly, several unequivocal statements were made by First Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff General-Colonel Yuriy Baluyevskiy. During a joint media briefing with Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Security Cooperation (January 16, 2002) held after a scheduled round of Russian-American discussions on reduction of nuclear weapons, he answered a question on whether an agreement on reduction of nuclear warheads should entail their elimination saying that warheads "dismounted from the carriers should be destroyed and eliminated". In an interview for Izvestia (published on January 18, 2002 - in Russian) he explained that "...unfortunately, the very notion of "reductions" is interpreted differently by each side. We call upon removal and dismantlement of nuclear warheads... Americans insist on that the difference of 4,000 warheads should become their insurance reserve, that in an extraordinary situation could be returned to the carriers. In other words, they put them aside for a "rainy day" rather than eliminate. This approach doesn't suit us..."
Yadernaya Bezopasnost

In an interview to the TV Channel ORT's "Novosti" (News) Program aired on January 30, 2002, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgy Mamedov said: "...In the Draft Treaty, which we laid on the table during the talks in Washington, there are new proposals that are directed to ensuring precisely the liquidation of the carriers and the warheads alike." Mr. Mamedov made this statement right after conclusion of the first round of talks with John Bolton, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

Although Kremlin did not disclose to the general public the essence of the proposals on elimination of decommissioned warheads, these statements are remarkable on their own, since they can witness the change of Russian approach to the problem of verifiable elimination of nuclear warheads.

Well-known is a fact that verification procedures of the START I and START II Treaties provide for measures to control elimination of decommissioned delivery systems. However, nuclear warhead stockpiles and elimination of decommissioned nuclear warheads are not covered by these procedures. For this reason, we believe that extension of transparency measures over those nuclear warheads and fissile materials stockpiles, which are considered to be excessive for national security, is a necessary and natural step. The goal of this transparency regime would be mutual control over the elimination of nuclear warheads, that would allow to reliably verify that warheads covered by the agreement are in fact dismantled, and that fissile materials (i.e. components made of plutonium and HEU) -- are not used for military purposes anymore. However, as Marshal Igor Sergeyev, adviser to President Putin on strategic stability noted in a recent interview for Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, "...there was always an understanding that it is necessary to ensure real elimination of nuclear warheads in the strategic arms agreements. It's quite another matter that we never succeeded in implementation of the idea..."

The actual state of affairs in verification of nuclear warhead elimination can be explained by several reasons.

Verification of warhead dismantlement requires much greater efforts than of delivery vehicle elimination. A nuclear warhead cannot be destroyed by blast, cannot be cut or split apart by any other method. The warhead dismantlement process consists of several stages: disassembly of non-nuclear components, removal of tritium containers, removal of the nuclear explosive physics package, removal and disassembly of the secondary. It is followed by disassembling the nuclear explosive physics package, which begins with removal of climate control system, separation of the high explosive from the nuclear components, and disassembly of the pit. Parts of the pits made of fissile material are placed in special canisters. Next, the secondary is disassembled, and all of its nuclear parts are also placed in canisters. Currently, fissile-material-containing parts are kept at special storage located at the dismantling facilities.

There is no doubt, that direct monitoring of nuclear warhead dismantlement will result in revealing classified data related with warhead design. These data refer to the warhead total weight, weight of fissile materials inside the warhead, configuration, size and weight of fissile-material-containing parts. For this reason arms control experts have a clear understanding that today the direct monitoring of warhead dismantlement is unrealistic as a verification procedure.

Another serious obstacle to the verification of warhead destruction is the fact that as a rule nuclear warheads are dismantled at the production facilities. Maintenance of the active nuclear weapons requires a regular replacement of the expired warheads and, consequently, their production. Thus, warheads of the same type may go in and out through the gates of the same facility. Some of them enter for dismantlement, and the other leave for military units.

In the past, Russian and U.S. sides made several attempts to solve the problem of control over elimination of nuclear warheads.

For example, in a joint Summit statement in Moscow on 10 May 1995 it was declared that the Russian Federation and the United States were to hold negotiations on an agreement to increase the level of transparency and irreversibility of nuclear weapons reductions. The statement proclaimed that the main provisions of the future agreement will include:

However, Moscow abruptly discontinued the talks in the beginning of 1996.

After that, the Joint March 1997 Helsinki Statement declared that "measures relating to the transparency of strategic nuclear warhead inventories and the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads" will lie at the foundation of a new nuclear weapons reduction treaty. Further official consultations on START III gave no real results despite of significant efforts by the U.S. side, which was very much interested in transparency of Russian nuclear arsenal. However, it is necessary to note that the US did not intend to eliminate their decommissioned warheads. In accordance with US Nuclear Posture Review in force at that time, most of the warheads removed from delivery systems had to be kept ready for deployment (hedge). The new US administration not only keeps the clause on necessity to keep "reserve" warheads in their new Nuclear Posture Review, but also declined to continue negotiations within the framework of Helsinki agreements, giving preference to unilateral measures on strategic arms reductions.

These two instrument compartments and warhead sections of SS-20 were destroyed on May 13, 1991, at Kapustin Yar, USSR, in the presence of American INF inspectors.

For these reasons, recent declarations by Russian officials on the necessity of verifiable warhead elimination seem to be driven by an intent to awake US interest in signing a binding agreement on strategic arms reductions. However, it all depends on the essence of Russian proposal. Rather symptomatic seems to be one of the suggestions of an article by Maj. Gen. Vladimir Z. Dvorkin (in Russian), former participant to Russian-American negotiations, published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta on February 4, 2002. According to Maj. Gen. Dvorkin, it is necessary to introduce as supplemental measures "...verifiable elimination of cases of the warheads removed from ICBMs and SSBNs that are subject to reductions under agreements reached...". Similar measures were used before, during implementation of the INF Treaty -- front sections, including reentry vehicles, minus nuclear warhead devices, and instrumentation compartments, minus guidance elements, were crushed or flattened.

If Russian proposals are limited by verification of elimination of warhead cases, then they are unlikely to be of interest for the US. Control over warhead cases does not allow to ensure dismantlement of nuclear warheads and disposal of nuclear materials.

Otherwise, it is evident, that there is a progress of Russian position in solving the problem of verifiable elimination of nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, one should understand that negotiations over this problem are in their early stages, and it would be unrealistic to expect implementation of comprehensive transparency measures in the near future.

This page will be updated as events develop.

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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, MIPT, 2002.