Half-True
Kaine
Says Hillary Clinton "went toe-to-toe with Russia as secretary of state to do the New START agreement to reduce Russia's nuclear stockpile."

Tim Kaine on Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 in the vice presidential debate in Farmville, Va.

Tim Kaine overstates Clinton's record on cutting Russia's nuclear stockpile

At the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate, Democratic nominee Tim Kaine and Republican Pence Clash on Russia and Syria. (AP video)

Whereas Donald Trump has undisclosed business dealings with Russia, Hillary Clinton got the country to reduce its nuclear weapons, said Clinton’s running mate Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

At the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate in Farmville, Va., Kaine argued Clinton is more equipped than Trump to deal with Russia.

"She went toe-to-toe with Russia as secretary of state to do the New START agreement to reduce Russia's nuclear stockpile," he said.

New START, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, is an agreement between Russia and the United States designed to limit both countries’ deployed strategic nuclear weapons. The original START treaty was in force from 1994 until it expired in 2009; New START was signed in April 2010 and went into effect in February 2011.

Clinton has similarly touted the New START agreement, saying it cuts Russia’s nuclear arms. We rated her claim Half True because it overstated the treaty’s impact.

Kaine’s claim that the treaty was supposed "to reduce Russia’s nuclear stockpile" falls into the same hole, just a bit deeper. The treaty, in fact, doesn’t require Russia to cut its nuclear stockpile at all because it only limits deployed weapons.

"Russia is not expected to rapidly or dramatically reduce its nuclear weapons holdings," said Lisa Koch, a professor and nuclear proliferation expert at Claremont McKenna College. "New START could be characterized as a modest, rather than a sweeping, arms control treaty."

What’s in the treaty?

As secretary of state, Clinton was involved in New START's negotiation and passage. Replacing the prior START treaty was a priority of Clinton's in the beginning of her tenure in 2009. She served as co-commissioner of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, and she personally met with Russian leaders in Moscow to discuss New START during the negotiation phase. She also was involved in persuading senators to support the treaty. 

New START has three primary limitations on vehicles capable of launching nuclear weapons and the nuclear warheads themselves. By February 2018, Russia and the United States each have to meet these restrictions:

  • 700 deployed ballistic missiles and heavy bombers, which include intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons;

  • 800 total deployed and non-deployed launchers, such as intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers, and nuclear-capable heavy bombers;

  • 1,550 total deployed nuclear warheads on these missiles and bombers.

It’s accurate that these limits are more restrictive than prior treaties. For example, START I limited deployed nuclear warheads to 6,000, and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty limited them to 1,700-2,200.

But it’s questionable whether it has, in practice, reduced Russia’s nuclear arsenal for two main reasons:

First, Russia was actually below New START limits in two out of the three categories right when treaty implementation began in February 2011.

The State Department publishes where both countries stand on these requirements twice a year, starting with an initial exchange of data when New START took force in February 2011.

At that time, Russia had 865 deployed and non-deployed launchers for strategic missiles and heavy bombers, meaning it would have to reduce that fleet by 65 to meet the limit of 800 by February 2018. However, Russia had 521 deployed missiles and heavy bombers out of 700 allowed, and 1,537 deployed nuclear warheads out of 1,550 allowed.

So Russia could actually increase its deployed missiles and heavy bombers, as well as its deployed nuclear warheads, beyond that initial February 2011 count and still be within treaty limits.

Before New START passed, it was clear Russia intended to modernize its nuclear arsenal in a big way, said Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative. Now, their modernization efforts have to fit within the New START limits, and it’s unclear if they would have grown beyond those limits absent the treaty.

"I would say that New START does reduce and limit Russian strategic arms, but I would not overly hype the depth of the reduction," said Pifer, a Clinton supporter who testified before Congress in favor of New START.

Second, New START only limits a portion of the nuclear arsenals.

New START mainly counts strategic, deployed weapons. But it doesn’t limit nonstrategic weapons, nor weapons that have been stockpiled or retired.

The treaty "does not require either government to destroy non-deployed warheads," Koch said. "Both governments can still stockpile warheads beyond the agreed-upon limit of 1,550 without violating the treaty."

Excluding the thousands of warheads that have been retired and are awaiting dismantlement, Russia currently has about 4,500 nuclear warheads, including stockpiles and 1,735 deployed warheads, according to Federation for American Scientists estimates.

Russia’s total nuclear warhead arsenal has been on a steady decline since the 1990s. That decline has nearly stagnated during President Barack Obama’s presidency, hovering at around 4,500 since 2012, according to Federation for American Scientists data.

Throughout Obama’s tenure — and Clinton’s term as secretary of state — Russia has shrunk its total nuclear arsenal far less than it did under the past three presidents. And it would be difficult to attribute any reduction in Russia’s nuclear stockpiles to New START, given that the treaty only limits deployed weapons.

"The end of the Cold War, the financial crisis in the 1990s and the START I treaty had a much greater effect on shaping Russia's current and planned nuclear posture than the New START treaty," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, which supports arms control.

It’s worth noting that some experts no longer consider stockpiles a serious threat to security. Under New START’s deployed weapons restrictions, the effectiveness of a large stockpile is limited, especially because Russia only produces about 10 missiles per year, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Thus the treaty might make it so that Russia does not feel the need to stockpile as many weapons.

Our ruling

Kaine said Clinton "went toe-to-toe with Russia as secretary of state to do the New START Agreement to reduce Russia's nuclear stockpile."

New START cuts the number of strategic weapons that the United States and Russia can have deployed at any time, and Clinton played a key role in treaty negotiations. However, it does not restrict either country from stockpiling weapons, nor does it require them to destroy any existing weapons.

The treaty hasn’t cut Russia’s nuclear arms yet. But if it does in the future, after the treaty is fully implemented in 2018, it seems that any reductions would be minimal rather than sweeping. And Russia, for the most part, was actually meeting the treaty’s limits when implementation began.

We rate Kaine’s claim Half True.

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