Jeffrey LewisCheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater

That’s about the level of the rhetoric these days surrounding the new State Department “compliance” report.

Although the Compliance Report (properly, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments) isn’t strictly speaking part of the ratification package for the New START agreement, some opponents are trying to argue that Russia has been cheating on old START, so damn New START.  Bill Gertz in the Washington Times and, sadly, Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus in the Washington Post parroted that argument in a pair of articles today.  That’s been picked up by UPI and, you guessed it, the Heritage Foundation.

Only one problem: The Compliance Report doesn’t say anything remotely like that.

What the report does say, in very plain language, is that Russia is “in compliance with the START strategic offensive arms (SOA) central limits for the 15-year term of the Treaty.”  When any normal person (ie, not a Heritage Foundation employee or a Moonie) imagines “cheating” they are thinking about the central limits — do the Russians have more bombers, missiles, or nuclear warheads than they are permitted?  The answer is no, Russia is in compliance.

The State Department has begun to push back, with AP’s Robert Burns and The Cable’s Josh Rogin, but the damage has been done.

Now, as you might expect, disputes will arise in a treaty written in two languages by parties that trusted each other so little that treaty text and associated documents run to about 700 pages and specify details down to the paint job on the aircraft that transports the inspectors.  (Camouflage is ok, in case you were wondering.) The Old START Treaty reads like a tour rider for David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, which famously prohibited brown M&Ms among other, um, unique demands.

The Compliance Report clearly describes START implementation as an “overall success.” Here is the actual text relating to outstanding issues:

The United States raised new compliance issues since the 2005 Report. The United States considered several of these to have been closed. A number of the remaining issues highlighted the different interpretations of the Parties about how to implement the complex inspection and verification provisions of the START Treaty.

Major long-standing issues related to the reentry vehicle inspection (RVOSI) of ICBMs for mobile launchers were resolved since the 2005 Report. An issue over measurement of launch canisters on deployed mobile launchers for mobile ICBMs also was resolved. For some of the unresolved issues which did not change, the United States made a determination not to raise the issue with the other Parties unless there was some future change in the situation. One issue that was reported in the 2005 Report was the Russian practice of exiting SS-27 road-mobile launchers from the Barrikady production facility at Volgograd and transiting them over 100 kilometers to a “break-in” area near Kapustin Yar without declaring them Treaty-accountable upon their first exit from the production facility. The Russian Federation ceased this practice and the United States considered this issue closed.

So, that’s it.  Its a big paragraph about how they resolved or closed most of the important issues in the 2005 report, while others remain. THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS!  Oh, wait.

Which brings me to an interesting point: Why did the unclassified 2005 report bother to enumerate the compliance disputes in such lurid detail?

Generally speaking, when a difference of interpretation arose between Washington and Moscow, lifelong civil servants quietly handled it in the Joint Inspection and Compliance Commission.  The JCIC has hammered out 39 Joint Statements over the life of the treaty on topics ranging from the use of Greenwich Mean Time to which side gets to hold the measuring tape during an inspection. (You think that’s hyperbole?) The vast majority of important disputes have been resolved in this manner without fanfare or meddlesome Senators.  So, for example, the 2005 report noted that, of six new disputes that the US raised since the last report, and four were already closed. The 2010 is more vague, simply noting that new concerns were raised since 2005, with “several” closed.

Now, there is another class of disputes: Those that arose almost immediately after the treaty was signed — many during the first year of Treaty implementation.

In the 2005 report, the Bush Administration chose to detail  five of these “long-standing” issues. Generally, its bad form to wash the linens in public, but the Bush Administration chose these five illustrative disputes –either to give a flavor of the sort of compliance issues in the JCIC or to be churlish.  You can decide.

Here is a heavily edited version of the illustrative list of “long-standing” issues, along with their status in 2005 and 2010:

1. Inability to Confirm during Reentry Vehicle Inspections (RVOSIs) that the Number of Attributed ICBM Warheads Has Not Been Exceeded. During certain RVOSIs, Russia did not demonstrate to the satisfaction of the U.S. inspection team that additional covered objects located on the front section, and declared by Russia not to be RVs, were not RVs.

2005. Russian RV covers, and their method of emplacement, have in some cases hampered U.S. inspectors from ascertaining that the front section of the missiles contains no more RVs than the number of warheads attributed to a missile of that type under the Treaty. Russian cooperation in the use of RDE and other measures has been helpful in addressing some, but not all, of the difficulties encountered by U.S. inspectors.

2010. Major long-standing issues related to the reentry vehicle inspection (RVOSI) of ICBMs for mobile launchers were resolved since the 2005 Report.

2. Russian Road-Mobile Launchers “Break-in.” Russia has failed to declare certain road-mobile launchers of ICBMs when they first leave their production facility, as required by the Treaty. Russia has moved some of these launchers to an undeclared “break-in” area located over 60 miles from the production facility without declaring that they have left the production facility and are accountable under the Treaty.

2005. Russia continues to violate START provisions relevant to these obligations.

2010. The Russian Federation ceased this practice and the United States considered this issue closed.

3. Deployed SS-25 Road-Mobile Launchers Based Outside Their Designated Restricted Areas. Russia based some deployed SS-25 road-mobile launchers outside their declared restricted areas (RAs) at two road-mobile ICBM bases while these RAs were under construction.

2005. This practice has ceased and the United States considers this issue closed.

4. Denial of the Right to Measure Certain Deployed ICBM Launch Canisters on Mobile Launchers. U.S. inspectors have been prevented from exercising the Treaty right to measure certain ICBM launch canisters on mobile launchers, both deployed and non-deployed, that are encountered during data update inspections to confirm data regarding the type of item of inspection.

2005. Russia prevented U.S. inspectors from exercising their Treaty right to measure launch canisters for SS-24 ICBMs …. With regard to launch canisters for SS-25 and SS-27 ICBMs located on road-mobile launchers, the Parties have agreed upon a policy arrangement to address this issue, but it has not yet been implemented …

2010. An issue over measurement of launch canisters on deployed mobile launchers for mobile ICBMs also was resolved.

4. Telemetry Issues. The United States has raised several concerns regarding Russia’s failure to provide all Treaty-required telemetry materials for some START-accountable flight tests …

2005. Russia has in some instances failed to comply with Treaty requirements regarding the provision of telemetry information on missile flight testing pursuant to Article X of the START Treaty and Sections I and II of the Telemetry Protocol.

I would say three things about this list.

First, there is no way you could explain the significance of any of these violations to someone you’ve just met at a cocktail party without serious social awkwardness. Explaining telemetry means explaining throw-weight, which is a real conversation killer. These violations are worth addressing in the JCIC — little things matter, which is why Van Halen insisted that the brown M&Ms come out, as a sort of proxy for the seriousness of the other party when it came to important matters like lighting, sound, and that giant tube of KY.  But, while worth addressing in the JCIC, these issues are also arcane.  When normal people imagine the Russians are “cheating” on a treaty, they aren’t imagining whether the “break in” location is a contiguous part of the production facility or whether non-contiguous facilities can only be those with site diagrams.

Second, these disputes arise largely from the sort of cumbersome treaty restrictions that both the United States and Russia sought to eliminate in New START.  Remember when Paula DeSutter asserted that START was  “cumbersome and its complicated reporting standards have outlived their usefulness”? This is what she was talking about. Now, suddenly, some Republicans are asserting the violations of provisions they wanted to eliminate are matters of grave concern to national security.  Spare me. Most of these disputes would not arise under the New START treaty, which has shifted from restrictions on operational practices like these to a notifications-based system.

Finally, and this is the most important argument, the US and Russia either resolved or closed most of the issues. In particular, the United States and Russia resolved the most important dispute relating to reentry vehicle inspections which, incidentally, is probably the only dispute with any implication to New START.  (No,  I don’t think the “break in” area matters.) Yet instead of throwing a giant victory party, some people are wandering around muttering “throw-weight” and “telemetry.”

In other words, there is a powerful counter-narrative in the report suggesting that the US and Russia have a successful history of raising and addressing concerns about how each implements the treaty.  That successful history is an offensive argument to support ratification of New START.

Which raises a philosphical question: Are compliance disputes a sign of trouble?  The Washington Post and Washington Times would have you believe so, but that is backwards.  The fact that most of the new issues are resolved in a matter of course and, since 2005, the major backlog issues were also resolved, suggests a treaty structure that is advancing stability, predictability and transparency. To put it another way, don’t like how the Russians are deploying their road-mobile missiles?  Try complaining with no treaty and see how far you get.

This not to say that the New START won’t have plenty of compliance disputes. It will.  But the experience of START should provide encouragement that significant issues can be resolved in a manner that benefits both countries.


  1. A Former Inspector (History)

    The salient facts are:

    1) Republicans and the Moonie Paper would rather play politics with American foreign policy and national security rather than hand President Obama a victory on his signature foreign policy issue, and,

    2) Most Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, are just simply really, really, embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to this stuff.

    This has nothing at all to do with non-conforming front section soft covers, a fanciful revival of the rail-mobile ICBM system or those evil Russians keeping us from fielding a thousand ABMs in former Peacekeeper silos.

    And why was half of the Moonie Times article about North Korean and Iranian programs? Last time I checked, they weren’t signatories to the treaty.

  2. blowback (History)

    Did/do the Russians produce compliance reports of their issues with the Americans’ interpretation of the treaty? Did/do they have any issues?

    • anon (History)

      Yes, Russia had ongoing concerns with U.S. compliance with START. I don’t know if they ever produced a “compliance report” but they complained about a long list of things, including our use of covers during RV OSIs and our efforts to demonstrate that the B-1 bombers were not equipped to carry cruise missiles. Sometimes their complaints were significant (and we altered our procedures); sometimes they were petty, and seemed to be an effort to match or balance our complaints. But then, sometimes our complaints were significant, and sometimes they may have seemed petty to the Russians….

  3. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Great wonk, Jeffrey.

  4. Pavel (History)

    Of course, there are issues with U.S. compliance as well. It’s in the report (p. 6):

    a number of compliance questions were raised by our Treaty
    partners. These questions primarily concerned procedural issues related to inspections, flight tests of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and telemetry. A number of these issues were resolved […] while others were under active discussion since 1995.

    If I remember correctly, one of the issues that go back to (at least) 1995 was the fact that inspectors were not able to verify that Trident missiles carried eight warheads as declared. The shroud that the U.S. Navy used during inspections was large enough to cover ten. In fact, I would guess that whatever problems U.S. inspectors had with RVOSI was a “retaliation” for the problems Russian inspectors were having. There were other issues as well – elimination of the MX missiles and things like that.

    Of course, in the U.S. discussion “cheating” is what other people do. As far as the U.S. is concerned, it is something that “might be expected under a verification regime with the breadth and intrusiveness of START.”

  5. kgun (History)


    In general, I completely agree with the thrust of the post and its conclusions, particularly the philosophical question at the end. Also, kudos for the masterful inclusion of the Van Halen rider comparison (nice to see Schlitz Malt Liquor made the list). However, I believe you omitted the operative paragraph (at least for Treaty detractors) in the report, which was the crux of the Bill Gertz piece.

    “Notwithstanding the overall success of START implementation, a number of long-standing compliance issues that were raised in the START Treaty’s Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission (JCIC) remained unresolved when the Treaty expired on December 5, 2009. Throughout the term of the Treaty, the Parties worked through diplomatic channels and in the JCIC to ensure smooth implementation of the Treaty and effective resolution of compliance issues and questions.”

    Aside from the fact that these two sentences together form a bit of a non sequitur in my mind, I chalk up the hubbub about compliance to bad writing/editing on the part of State, specifically this paragraph. What should have been inserted in between these two sentences is Rose Gottemoeller’s quote from the Rogin piece: “[However, the unresolved points of compliance in question] covered minor technical issues [and were] not a deliberate attempt by Russia to circumvent the treaty.”

    State really should have been more careful with the language on compliance in the report, especially given the nature of the current debate on New START. It is well understood that Treaty detractors will seize any opportunity to cast doubt on the merits of the Treaty/U.S.-Russian arms control.

  6. John Bragg (History)

    So, there was a bear in the woods. It was shot and killed in 2006.

  7. blowback (History)

    Thanks anon. Perhaps the US and Russia should start producing a joint compliance report for the New START treaty – might do a lot to improve confidence and reduce the possibilities of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

  8. Muskrat (History)

    “I chalk up the hubbub about compliance to bad writing/editing on the part of State, specifically this paragraph. …. State really should have been more careful with the language on compliance in the report, especially given the nature of the current debate on New START.

    As someone who once sat through many hours of committee meetings on former years’ compliance reports, both intra- and inter-agency, I can assure you that those lines were scrutinized very carefully, and almost certainly fought over again and again. They smell like a classic compromise between those who wanted to say “Russia trashed the treaty like the Huns did Rome” and those who wanted “Russia never did settle all our stupid little issues.” These things are always fought over in the sausage-making process. I used to help crank the grinder.

    Clarifying statements like that of RG have a different place; she can make them with little or no need to clear them or haggle over language, or at least she gets to clear them with a different stratum of the sausage factory.

    I could go on, but arrgghhhhhhh the memories!