State Department: Russia was not cheating on START

State Department: Russia was not cheating on START

The State Department does not believe that Russia has been cheating on its obligations under START I, the now-defunct 1991 nuclear reductions treaty and is confident that Russia will abide by the new treaty when it is ratified, according to the treaty’s top negotiator.

Concerns about Russian behavior were spelled out in two articles Wednesday, both of which referred to a newly submitted State Department report on treaty compliance over the last five years. Both articles asserted that language in the report referring to disputes between the United States and Russia over compliance and verification mechanisms spell danger for New START, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on next week.

But in an exclusive interview with The Cable, State’s lead negotiator for New START, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller, said that nothing in the report accuses Russia of cheating or undermines the Obama administration’s confidence that the new treaty can be enforced.

"Cheating implies intent to undermine a treaty. There’s no history of cheating on the central obligations of START; there’s a history of abiding by the treaty. " Gottemoeller said.

"Generally the record for the major conventions is a good one. With regard to START, the Russians have been very serious and it has been a success."

The Washington Post‘s version of the story was originally entitled, "Report finds Russians may not be in compliance, could sink new START treaty," a headline that shocked State Department employees. The headline was later changed to "Report findings about Russia could complicate debate on new START pact." The Washington Timesversion was entitled, "Russia violated ’91 START till end, U.S. report finds," another headline multiple State Department officials said was misleading.

With regard to START I, Gottemoeller said that there were several disputes over compliance issues on both sides, many of which had been resolved over the last two years due to intensive work between the Obama administration and the Russians. Yes, there are some compliance issues that were not resolved, but those covered minor technical issues, she argued, not a deliberate attempt by Russia to circumvent the treaty.

The text of the report (pdf), obtained in advance of its release by The Cable, backs up that assertion.

"The United States raised new compliance issues since the 2005 Report (the most recent one before today)," the document states. "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."

"We think [the compliance report] actually tells a good story about Russia and its willingness to resolve compliance and verification issues and should help ratification," said Gottemoeller, citing a now-resolved dispute over re-entry vehicles as one example of constructive U.S.-Russia dealing over compliance.

The Post‘s story focuses on the report’s criticisms of Russian compliance with two agreements not directly related to START: the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

"It remains unclear," the report states, "whether Russia has fulfilled its BWC obligations." Later on, it reads: "The United States is unable to ascertain whether Russia’s CWC declaration is complete… and whether Russia is complying with the CWC-established criteria for destruction and verification of its CW."

On this point, Gottmoeller acknowledged that there are some outstanding questions about what biological and chemical weapons programs were left over from the Soviet Union and said that the Russian government is working with oversight bodies to resolve open questions, but that is not directly related to START.

A State Department official, speaking on background, noted the irony of GOP senators worrying about compliance and verification while stalling on ratification of the new treaty. Since the old START agreement expired last December, all U.S. personnel working to monitor Russian nuclear stockpiles have been removed and until the new treaty is ratified, there isn’t any verification at all.

"We need a treaty to comply with," the official said. "Until the new treaty enters into force, we don’t know what they are doing."

This official also sought to correct the record about what State sees as another misleading criticism of the department’s actions on START — that the administration believes Russian cheating, if it were discovered, would not be a big deal.

That line of argument stemmed from a recent congressional hearing where Pentagon official James Miller said, "Because the United States will retain a diverse triad of strategic forces, any Russian cheating under the treaty would have little effect on the assured second-strike capabilities of U.S. strategic forces."

The State Department official said that Miller’s remark doesn’t mean cheating isn’t a big concern.

"As far as State is concerned, cheating is any form would be a huge issue… so it absolutely would be something we would take very seriously."