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Clinton, Kaine go too far in touting a nuclear deal with Russia

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

I “got the treaty cutting Russia’s nuclear arms”
–Hillary Clinton, in a television ad, first aired Sept. 9. 2016

“Hillary oversaw hard-nosed negotiations with the Russians for a new START treaty to greatly reduce our countries’ nuclear stockpiles.”
–Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), speech on national security, Wilmington, N.C., Sept. 6, 2016

Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have been selling her expertise and experience in Washington, including her stint as secretary of state in President Obama’s first term. A key talking point is that she sealed an agreement with Russia that resulted in “cutting Russia’s nuclear arms” (Clinton’s words) and “greatly [reducing] our countries’ nuclear stockpiles” (Kaine’s phrasing).

We should note that we are late to fact-checking these talking points. Our colleagues at PolitiFact and have already found them wanting. But since a version of these lines are likely to come up in the debates, we wanted to offer readers our own analysis of this issue.

The Facts

The treaty, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), was intended to be the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s ill-fated pivot in relations with Russia. It was negotiated early in the Obama administration as a replacement for an arms-control treaty that expired at the end of 2009 and approved by the Senate in a 71-to-26 vote in December of 2010.

New START limits each side to 1,550 strategic deployed warheads, down from 2,200. It limits the number of deployed heavy bombers and missiles to 700 (800, including associated launchers), down from 1,600. The treaty introduced counting rules for deployed weapons, but it was more than a counting game; it also included new verification procedures, with provisions for data exchanges, notifications and inspections that supposedly reflected the improved relationship with Russia and was easier to obtain than through surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

The treaty went into effect in early 2011 and is due to be fully implemented in 2018. It will remain in force for 10 years. (Here’s a detailed look by the Congressional Research Service on the treaty provisions.)

So the New START treaty certainly sets limits on nuclear arms. Ellen Tauscher, a Clinton supporter who was undersecretary of state for arms control when the treaty was negotiated, told The Fact Checker: “It caps future growth by the Russians and gets both countries to parity, in a visible and verifiable way by 2018.”

But let’s look at how Clinton and Kaine talked about it. Clinton said the treaty was “cutting” Russia’s nuclear arms while Kaine said it would “greatly reduce…nuclear stockpiles.”

But here’s how many Russian nuclear arms were deployed at the time of the treaty went into effect: 521 deployed bombers and missiles (well below 700), 865 including launchers (slightly above 800) and 1,537 deployed warheads (slightly below 1550). The United States was above the limits in all cases, meaning it was required to eliminate more deployed nuclear weapons; the Russians, except in one instance, was already below the treaty caps.

In other words, Russia faces limits, but not a substantial reduction in arms. Kaine’s use of the phrase “nuclear stockpiles” is especially imprecise, because the treaty concerned deployed weapons, not the actual nuclear weapons that each country keeps in reserve.

“The New START treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead or places any limits on the total number of weapons the two countries can have in their military stockpiles — only the portion of those forces they have deploy at any given time,” said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “While the treaty limits the number of deployed strategic warheads to no more than 1,550 on both sides, each side has more than 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles, including thousands that can be loaded onto the launchers to increase the force if necessary.”

Indeed, Russia’s total nuclear warhead arsenal has been on a steady decline, from 40,000, since 1986 (during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union). During Obama’s presidency, Russia’s nuclear warhead total has hovered around 4,500 since 2012.

Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the treaty must be viewed in the context of the fact that Russia’s nuclear forces were aging and due for a major upgrade. “What we do not know is what the Russians might have done had there been no New START Treaty,” he said. “It’s pretty clear they intended a major strategic modernization effort, since a lot of their stuff was old. What they now plan — or say they plan — in the area of strategic modernization looks to be aimed at a force that would fit within the New START limits.”

Pifer added: “I would say that New START does reduce and limit Russian strategic arms, but I would not overly hype the depth of the reduction.”

The Federation of American Scientists has a handy chart showing the impact of the treaty through September 2016. The Russian numbers are climbing a bit because they are modernizing their force, so Russia now has 259 more warheads deployed than when the treaty went into force in 2011.

The Pinocchio Test

Nuclear arms is a highly technical area, and we understand the temptation for politicians to want to use easy-to-understand shorthand. New START placed a cap on deployed strategic weapons, but Russia for the most part was already meeting those targets when the treaty began to be implemented. The treaty does not restrict either country from stockpiling weapons, so Clinton and Kaine go too far to say that stockpiles have been reduced or that Russian nuclear weapons have been cut. In fact, at the moment deployed Russian warheads are climbing.

We wavered between One and Two Pinocchios, but in the end leaned toward Two. Clinton and Kaine need to make clearer they are talking about deployed nuclear weapons — and that future growth is capped. A few words can make a difference in being absolutely accurate.

Two Pinocchios

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