The 2002 Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions

Journal article

Goldblat, Jozef (2002) The 2002 Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, Security Dialogue 33 (3).

Viewpoints: The 2002 Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions

Contrary to predictions that the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty would make it impossible for Russia to continue its nuclear arms control transactions with the United States, the two powers in fact signed a new agreement – the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions – in Moscow on 24 May 2002. (The treaty is subject to ratification.)


With this treaty, Russia and the United States undertook to reduce their respective inventories of nuclear warheads so that, by 31 December 2012, these would not exceed an aggregate number of 1,700–2,200 warheads. (The pace of the reductions was left to the discretion of the two parties.) This commitment codifies the reductions announced in unilateral statements by the presidents of Russia and the United States in 2001.

As explained by the US spokesperson, the limitations apply only to warheads operationally deployed on launchers. The treaty does not spell out measures to verify compliance, but Russia and the United States will meet at least twice a year in a Bilateral Implementation Commission to discuss issues related to the treaty. It is understood that the verification regime of the START I Treaty, which remains valid until 2009, will provide a foundation for transparency and predictability regarding the implementation of the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions. However, it is not clear to what extent the former treaty, which deals exclusively with means of delivery, could help in controlling the observance of the latter, which deals exclusively with warheads.

The new treaty is to remain in force until 31 December 2012, but may be extended by agreement of the parties or superseded before this date by a subsequent agreement. Withdrawal from the treaty is allowed upon three months' notice.


By drastically reducing the number of warheads that can be launched instantaneously (by two-thirds from the 2002 levels of 5,000–7,000), the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions may diminish the likelihood of an unauthorized or accidental nuclear war between Russia and the United States, but its arms control benefit is meagre. Indeed, the new agreement falls far short of the nuclear powers' obligations under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The 2002 treaty is remarkable for what it allows rather than for what it prohibits. Under its terms, the parties remain free to produce both warheads and means of delivery (missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles [MIRVs], and bombers) without any restriction. Furthermore, non-deployed warheads possessed in excess of the agreed limits do not have to be decommissioned and destroyed; they may be stored without being subject to external controls. Thus, the constraints imposed by the treaty can be easily reversed. As stated in the text, each party will determine for itself the composition and structure of its strategic offensive arms. Consequently, instead of actually cutting their nuclear arsenals, Russia and the United States could simply rearrange them, qualitatively and quantitatively, or even increase them.

Nevertheless, the treaty reinforces the political rapprochement between the two nuclear superpowers. As made clear in the Joint Declaration, issued on the day of the treaty's signing, the two countries have agreed that a new strategic relationship between them, 'based on the principles of mutual security, trust, openness, cooperation and predictability', will require substantive consultation across a broad range of international security issues. They have therefore resolved to establish a Consultative Group for Strategic Security, to be chaired by their foreign and defence ministers. This group is intended to be the principal mechanism through which the two sides will strengthen mutual confidence, expand transparency, share information and plans, and discuss strategic issues of mutual interest.

Geneva International Peace Research
Institute (GIPRI), Switzerland

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙