I’ve been quiet about the START negotiations, save for the occasional tweet, in large part because it doesn’t make sense to second-guess negotiators, especially before they’ve completed their work. (Buy me a beer, on the other hand …)

But Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) made some remarks at the recent Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century (SW21) conference that have my attention — and I think they should have yours, too.

At this point, it is no secret that the new treaty is more like a SORT Plus, or if you want to be difficult, START Minus. The Russians went in with a goal of gutting the verification regime and, since that is also accomplished with the expiration of START, the Administration didn’t have too much leverage to stop them.

We know the START mobile missile monitoring regime has been, er, streamlined with the elimination of Portal-Perimeter Continuous Monitoring (PPCM) at Votkinsk. (If you are interested in how the START regime monitored mobile missiles — which comprised an integrated system of obligations — I recommend either Kerry Kartchner’s Negotiating START or Jill Jermano’s and Susan Springer’s Monitoring Road-Mobile Missiles Under START: Lessons from the Gulf War.)

And it is no secret that the last remaining issue is the encryption of telemetry data from missile tests— START prohibited parties from encrypting telemetry as part of the verification regime for throw-weight limits. The Russians want to resume encrypting telemetry, citing the development of US missile defenses and the lack of a limit on throw-weight to verify. (Or, at least, to get comparable data from the US on missile defenses.) If you want to know more, I recommend recent stories by Josh Rogin, Rocket data dispute still unresolved in U.S.-Russia nuke talks and Elaine Grossman, Talks Hit ‘Sweet Spot’ for Landing New START Agreement, U.S. Official Says, or commentary from John Warden and Kingston Rief.

After the Jones/Mullen visit to Moscow and the Obama-Medvedev phone call, it looks like the parties will split the baby, as it were — probably with a limited exchange of telemetry data, if I had to guess. And I hate to guess.

In light of these two issues — monitoring mobile missiles and telemetry — I draw your attention to Senator Lugar’s remarks at the SW21 conference, in which he described himself as “look[ing] forward to a successor to the START treaty” and outlined his thinking on what the Senate might, and might not, consent to ratify.

This is a shot across the bow. Like most Lugar statements, it is precise, civil and free from partisan hyperbole — but that doesn’t diminish the whiff of grapeshot:

Nowhere has the value of strong verification procedures been more clearly demonstrated than the START I Treaty. Whatever is devised to replace it, must be effectively verifiable. START I, together with the Nunn-Lugar program, have served as the means for a dramatically changed relationship with Russia. In fact, recalling the testimony of Ambassador Lehman before the Foreign Relations Committee in 1992 on the START I Treaty, it was clear that a primary goal of the nearly decade-long negotiations on the START I Treaty was to open Soviet society via the treaty. As time has progressed, some have asked whether START I’s “burdensome” verification provisions are necessary given the changed world in which we live. I believe that weakening verification procedures comes with great risks, not merely because the other side may cut corners, but because our relationship with Russia benefits from the mutual confidence and interaction inherent in such procedures.

I have been a strong advocate for extending START I verification procedures. Unfortunately, a choice was made to informally act in the spirit of the treaty after its expiration on December 5, 2009, rather than to extend it by formal agreement. I am hopeful that a successor for START I will be successfully concluded in the coming months and that it will contain strong verification procedures.

The successor to START likely will be considered in the Senate at the same time that we consider the new Nuclear Posture Review and plans for modernization of our nuclear deterrent. START I was submitted at a time when the United States had an active modernization program with specific elements. Today’s stockpile stewardship program lacks this specificity and encompasses many different aspects of the weapons complex.

In 1992, we did not have the record we have today regarding access to Russian sites that produce missiles. We also did not have the telemetric data on Russian missiles provided under START I. Thus, some observers assess the impact of losing START’s verification measures to be minimal. They claim Russia will not field many new missiles in the next ten years and that we have data on all the missiles they are likely to field. However, the rate at which our knowledge erodes is directly related to the rate at which Russia fields new missiles for which we lack data or it modifies existing missiles. Verification of missile capabilities, particularly mobile missiles, depends on both how good our inspection regime is and the extent to which other data provided under the treaty informs the inspection process. Even if inspections are perfect, they will only tell us where a missile is at any given time and the number of warheads it is carrying, not what its capabilities might be.

It may be the case that for the next ten years our existing knowledge, based on what we have learned through the START regime and the Nunn-Lugar program, will provide us with sufficient confidence in making assessments of Russian missile capability. But that confidence will diminish with time. As a matter of national priority, we must maintain an ability to judge with high confidence the capabilities Russia pursues. If we cannot do so, then any attempt to negotiate additional treaties with Russia could founder, to say nothing of efforts for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Verification issues will play an important role in Senate consideration of a new treaty to replace START I. Then CIA Director Bob Gates stated before the Foreign Relations Committee in hearings on START in 1992, “the verifiability of this treaty has always been seen, by supporters and opponents alike, as the key to the Senate consent process.” Such comments equally apply to the treaty that will replace START I.

I suspect Lugar’s statement is a signal of possible trouble for the START Follow-on in the Senate — the President is asking Republicans to hand him a foreign policy victory.

The Administration is going to have to do better than arguing that the verification regime is better than nothing, that the gaps in verification don’t matter or that they’ll fix it in the next treaty. That’s going to mean committing to spend more money on US verification capabilities — note that in another portion of his speech, Lugar proposed “a new verification initiative that devotes substantially more resources to the problem” — and explaining that the Administration set, and stuck to, red-lines that result in an effectively verifiable treaty.