Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT)

Chris Sebastian
May 18, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Presidents Bush and Putin Sign the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which is known officially as The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions and commonly referred to as the Moscow Treaty, was a strategic arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia. As shown in Fig. 1, it was signed by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 24 May 2002. However, it did not come into force until 1 June 2003, as the United States Senate and Russian State Duma did not consent to ratification until 6 March 2003 and 14 May 2003, respectively. The Treaty's principal stipulation was that both countries would reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 over the following decade. [1] It would have expired on 31 December 2012 had it not been replaced by New START in 2011.

Historical Context

SORT was the third installment in a series of post-Cold War arms reduction (as opposed to arms limitation, which earlier treaties such as SALT I, SALT II, and the INF Treaty covered) treaties between the United States and Russia. It was preceded by START I (1991) and START II (1993), though the latter never came into effect due to Russia's disapproval of the United States' decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in June 2002. SORT also followed the failed START III negotiations, which were proposed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1997 but ultimately did not progress significantly.

The first signs of SORT can be found in a July 2001 meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin at the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy. In a joint statement following that meeting, the Presidents announced that they would "shortly begin intensive consultations on the interrelated subjects of offensive and defensive systems." [2] The next indication of progress came in November 2001, when Presidents Bush and Putin met during a summit in Washington D.C. Following that meeting, President Bush announced that he informed President Putin that "the United States [would] reduce [its] operationally deployed strategic warheads to a level between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next decade." In response, President Putin announced that Russia would "try to respond in kind." [3] The two sides began formal negotiations in regards to the specifics of SORT in January 2002.

Objectives and Negotiations

Reports during the early stages of the SORT negotiations indicate that the two sides initially had substantially different objectives. Russia advocated for a legally binding agreement with similar counting rules, elimination rules, and verification procedures to those found in START I and START II. In contrast, the United States sought to maintain flexibility in regards to the size and structure of its nuclear arsenal, and thus had no plans to sign a formal treaty imposing strict arms limitations. Moreover, while the Bush Administration had previously indicated that the United States planned to store all warheads removed from deployment, Russia sought to guarantee the irreversibility of the arms limits by requiring the elimination of all non-deployed warheads. Finally, the two sides also disagreed on whether to include missile defense restrictions in the agreement, with Russia seeking limits on defense systems and the United States wanting to focus solely on reductions in offensive nuclear weapons. [4]

Within about a month after the negotiations began, the United States had apparently ceded to Russia's desires regarding the form of the agreement, with Secretary of State Colin Powell confirming that it would be legally binding in a February 2002 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [5] However, differences over the content of the agreement took longer to resolve. In addition to the disagreements about both non-deployed warheads and missile defense systems, the two sides also differed on the counting and elimination rules behind the proposed limits as well as the means of verifying compliance. Per reports, Russia preferred using the same counting and elimination rules put forth in START; instead, the United States advocated for rules that would allow it to reverse the arms reductions if necessary. Further, to ensure compliance with the agreement Russia proposed a protocol of inspections and data exchanged, while the United States preferred a less formal system that relied on goodwill. [4]

While Russia was able to dictate the form of the agreement, the content of SORT largely reflected the United States' proposals. By March 2002 Russia had softened its stance on eliminating non-deployed warheads, with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stating "that for some period of time, those warheads could be stored or shelved." [6] Ultimately, this issue would not have mattered had SORT adopted START counting rules and elimination procedures, as they required the elimination of extra missile delivery vehicles and thus would have rendered stored warheads non-deployable. However, Russia accepted the United States' refusal to include START counting rules and elimination procedures shortly before the Treaty's completion. [4] Lastly, the issues of verifying compliance and limiting missile defense systems went largely unaddressed by SORT, although the United States and Russia did issue a Joint Declaration in May 2002 stating that they "agreed to implement a number of steps aimed at strengthening confidence and increasing transparency in the area of missile defense, including the exchange of information on missile defense programs and tests in this area, reciprocal visits to observe missile defense tests, and observation aimed at familiarization with missile defense systems." [7]


The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved the Resolution of Ratification for SORT by a vote of 19 to 0 on 5 February 2003. While the Committee did not request any changes to the Treaty, the Resolution of Ratification does include requirements and recommendations for the President. For example, it requires the President to report to the Committee each year on the progress that both the United States and Russia have made in reaching the arms limits stipulated in the Treaty. [7] The Senate approved the Resolution of Ratification by a vote of 95 to 0 on 6 March 2003.

Support for SORT in the Russian legislature was not unanimous, with the Communist Party denouncing it as a betrayal of Russian interests. Nonetheless, most members commended President Putin for producing a legally binding agreement. In a meeting on 21 January 2003, the Working Group of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly, which included members from both the State Duma and the Federation Council, drafted the necessary documents for ratifying SORT. [4] After delaying its debate and vote on SORT in March 2002, the State Duma passed a Federal Law on Ratification of SORT on 24 May 2002.

© Chris Sebastian. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "The Moscow Treaty," United States Senate, Treaty Doc. 107-8, May 2002.

[2] "Joint Statement by U.S. President George W. Bush and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir V. Putin on Upcoming Consultations on Strategic Issues," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush, 2001, Book II-July 1 to December 31, 2001, 985 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001).

[3] "The Bush-Putin Summit; In 2 Presidents' Words: The 'New Relationship' Moves to Antiterrorism," New York Times, 14 Nov 01.

[4] A. F. Woolf, "Nuclear Arms Control: The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty," Congressional Research Service, RL31448, February 2011.

[5] T. S. Purdum, "Powell Says U.S. Plans To Work Out Binding Arms Pact," New York Times, 6 Feb 02.

[6] T. Shanker, "Bush Appears Eager Now to Sign a Nuclear Pact With Russia," New York Times, 14 Mar 02.

[7] "Senate Consideration of Treaty Document 107-8," United States Senate, Exec. Rpt. 108-1, February 2003.