Jeffrey LewisMIRVs and the Moscow Treaty

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that “The Bush administration is beginning a broad review of its Russia policy that could lead to a more confrontational approach toward Moscow over its treatment of neighboring countries and its own citizens…” The review reflects a growing concern with Russian President Vladimir Putin, artfully captured by The Economist:

The conclusion is inescapable. Far from being a political and economic reformer who runs an admittedly flawed but still recognisable democracy, Mr Putin has become an obstacle to change who is in charge of an ill-managed autocracy.

Another cause for alarm has been the amount of sabre-rattling coming from Moscow, particularly Russian statements regarding the impending deployment of the MIRVed Topol-M missile. A nice summary of these statements is available in the most recent edition of Defense News (subscription required).

You remember MIRVs don’t you?

One of the drawbacks of the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation On Strategic Offensive Reductions (Moscow Treaty), which replaced the more detailed START II agreement, was that the Moscow Treaty permitted Russia to keep missiles with Multiple, Independently Targeted Warheads (MIRVs) like the American model pictured at right.

The START II Treaty prohibited MIRVs because their inherent vulnerability to a first strike (think many eggs in just a few baskets) creates pressure to keep forces on high rates of alert during peacetime and ratchet up alert rates in a crisis. (For a review of the myriad dangers with the MIRV, see Chapter 9, MIRV: The Multiple Menace, in Herbert York, Race to Oblivion, 1970).

In response to concerns that the Moscow Treaty let Russia keep its MIRVs, Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers chose to argue that improving U.S.-Russian relations solved the problem:

Today we do not believe the risk of an accident is determined by how many warheads are deployed on ICBMs. Nor do we believe that MIRVed ICBMs are inherently “destabilizing.” Therefore, the United States no longer feels threatened by how Russia structures its strategic nuclear forces.

(For a particularly lucid account of the Bush Administration’s “Don’t worry, be happy” approach to Russian MIRVs, see U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee, Treaty Doc. 107-8 S The Moscow Treaty, March 5, 2003, pp.6-7.)

The Bush Administration wanted to avoid any treaty constraints and gambled that no harm would come from scrapping the START process because impoving ties between Washington and Moscow obviated the need for traditional arms control. (Less charitable commentators would chalk it up to Bush gazing into Putin’s eyes and sensing his soul, but really .. that is beneath the Arms Control Wonk.)

How smart is that argument looking today?