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Analysis & Opinion
18.12.09 United States And Russia Heading Toward A New START Treaty
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Andrei Liakhov

The United States and Russia are likely to sign a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty perhaps as early as next week, to replace the 18-year-old START I treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991. But while the talks have been delayed by disagreements between the two countries, they are also said to have caused a rift in the Russian leadership. When will the new START treaty be signed? Is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev making risky bets in rushing into an agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama without thorough support from the Russian military and, most importantly, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself? And is Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world taken seriously by other nuclear powers?

U.S. and Russian negotiators have been working on the successor treaty since the spring of 2009 with a view to wrapping it up by early December (before the old START treaty expired on December 5, 2009).

On July 6, during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow, both sides signed the framework document on the content of the new treaty specifying much deeper reductions in strategic weapons holdings than envisioned under the previous treaty. Yet despite the high-level attention and a demanding political calendar that included Obama’s Nobel speech in Oslo on December 10 (the United States wanted the treaty ready before that historic event), the talks continued to drag on and even slowed down in the last couple of weeks.

The major points of disagreement seem to focus on three areas: reduction ceilings, disposition of means of delivery, and antimissile weapons. Firstly, the reduction ceiling put forward by the United States (1,000) is higher than that proposed by Russia (500).

Secondly, the disposition of means of delivery is a long-standing issue between the United States and Russia. Russia believes that all means of delivery (ICBMS, SLBMs and strategic bombers) should be treated as strategic weapons – that is, not only nuclear warheads should be taken into account, but the means of delivery must also be included in the reduction ceiling. The United States wants to put conventional warheads on some of its ICBMs and SLBMs and does not want to count them as strategic weapons. Russia is opposed to that.

Thirdly, Russia believes that antimissile weapons are strategic weapons, not defensive weapons, and that they can increase the effects of offensive weapons and therefore they must be included in the new treaty for reduction. The United States has always maintained that antimissile weapons should be treated separately and not included in the new treaty.

There are also some strong disagreements on verification instruments with Russia opposing continued U.S. inspections at its missile plant in Votkins, as well as calling for no restrictions on the movement of its mobile ICBMs on its territory.

Russian Newsweek reported in its Monday edition that serious disagreements over the new START treaty have developed within the top Russian leadership, with president Medvedev and his Foreign Policy Advisor Sergei Prihodko inclined to sign the treaty as soon as possible to score a major foreign policy success for Medvedev, and to demonstrate that the new engagement with the United States is working, while prime minister Putin and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov are opposed to rushing the deal until all Russian security concerns are satisfactorily dealt with.

Were this to be true, we might be facing a situation similar to the late 1980s and early 1990s when President Mikhail Gorbachev sought to shore up his declining domestic position with foreign policy successes achieved at the expense of the national security interests of his country.

Will the new START treaty be signed? Is it really important for Russia and the United States? If so, in what respects? Is Medvedev making risky bets in rushing into an agreement with Obama without thorough support from the Russian military and, most importantly, Putin himself? Can he really overrule Putin on a matter as important as nuclear policy? What will be the likely international implications of this new nuclear accord? Would other official nuclear powers be likely to join the nuclear reductions process along with Russia and the United States? Is Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world taken seriously by other nuclear powers?

Andrei Liakhov, Partner, Withers Worldwide LLP, London:

The differences in approach go much deeper and any further concessions by Russia will require a radical and a rather expensive re-think of its military and national defense doctrine. Russia's current national defense doctrine largely relies on its nukes to sustain any Second World War-style frontal ground attack, which NATO is still capable of launching, while its conventional forces are structured to fight local, low intensity, limited conflicts.

To be successful in its defense against the first strike, Russia needs to maintain essentially the status quo, which on its calculation will allow it not only to destroy its primary targets, but also to destroy all sites where the United States is storing its decommissioned warheads and delivery systems (primarily ICBMs), provided no anti-ICBM weapons systems are deployed by the American side. Hence Russia's focus on the U.S. strategic missile defense system in Europe.

For Russia to agree to any of the principal U.S. proposals will, inevitably, mean a thorough re-jig of the structure of its armed forces and its military doctrine. Having just finalized both, Serdyukov and Putin are understandably reluctant to go through another, rather painful and expensive process again. Any such re-think will require a substantial increase in defense spending to boost conventional forces, something Russia can ill-afford at the moment. Thus, unlike the Gorbachev administration, the current Kremlin has no strong economic incentive to go along with the United States.

Geopolitically there seems to be very little (if any) gains for Russia in reaching a new START agreement on U.S. terms. Russia could gain much more sway in Washington if it helped the United States to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or liberalized access to its natural resources for Western investors, than by signing START, which (given the current mood in the Congress) there is a good chance will not ratified by the United States.

Undoubtedly all of the above have been carefully considered by the Duumvirate. Neither Putin nor Medvedev seems to be either in awe of Obama nor (unlike in the late 1980s) is there any obvious public pressure to sign something with the United States "to show progress in our relationship," as Gorbachev put it in a party speech. Medvedev does not come across as someone who seeks Western recognition at any cost, as Gorbachev did when he needed Western support to balance his domestic opposition.

In the absence of both domestic and international pressure, Russia is likely to press ahead with long and detailed technical discussions, until and unless something happens that compels it to sign up to whatever deal is on the table at that moment. It is difficult to guess what this might be as there are very few "points of contact" between the United States and Russia that could be traded for Russia's signature on the new START treaty.

Like some of Obama's other ideas, a nuclear free world is more of a dream than a realistically achievable goal. It may also be noted that Obama is not the first world leader to suggest total nuclear disarmament. The Soviet Union consistently advocated an absolute ban on nuclear weapons from at least the early 1960s. At the time the counterargument was that the destructive force of nuclear weapons made them the best deterrent against another global war. This argument, in my view, still stands, and with the recent failures of the non-proliferation regime is only bound to gain more credence. It would seem that strengthening the non proliferation regime is a more obvious and relatively easily achievable target than the total ban on nuclear weapons.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Obama has clearly explained his personal goal to create a world that is completely free of nuclear weapons, a vision he acquired (unsurprisingly) during his undergraduate college studies. Notwithstanding the utopian and the adolescent nature of such a vision, Obama is responsible for such an assertion. Therefore, one would expect Washington to act with alacrity on the matter of concluding a new START treaty with Russia - a step in the direction of the grand undergraduate vision.

Otherwise, once again, there will be reasons to note that the declared intentions of the White House do not match American actions.

In the United States, there is apparently a lack of full appreciation of the scale of Washington’s credibility gap with Russia regarding armaments. This issue goes back to broken verbal promises not to expand NATO eastward, non-compliance with signed treaties to control conventional armaments in Europe, and - more recently - assurances that American weapons delivered to Georgia would not be used offensively (with the on-going U.S. re-armament of that country) and the persistence in deploying American weapons in Poland.

Washington needs to recognize the existence of this credibility gap and diligently work on repairing the results of many years of lapses and missed opportunities. The conclusion, ratification and faithful implementation of a new START treaty that addresses Russia’s current security concerns is perhaps a pivotal element in a process of rebuilding and enhancing the element trust in U.S.-Russia relations. This should become a factual demonstration of Obama’s rhetoric.

Regarding the need for closure on the new START treaty, one should suppose that it is Obama who at present needs a major foreign policy success. It is no secret that President Obama’s approval rating in America has dropped well below 50 percent, that his domestic programs are struggling at the Capitol (this despite solid Democratic majorities) and that his recent Nobel Peace Prize acceptance was criticized by 60 percent of Americans.

Neither Russia’s president Medvedev nor prime minister Putin is in such straits. The suggestion that someone in Moscow is eager to close the new START deal with America in order to improve approval ratings in Russia does not seem very serious, and is not based on Russian political realities.

It is reasonable to expect that a new START treaty will be achieved. It should be remembered that after the appropriate signing ceremony, there will need to be complete legislative ratification in the United States and Russia and implementation of monitoring mechanisms before one can correctly state that a new U.S.-Russian START treaty is in place, and that Vice President Joe Biden’s “reset” button has worked (at least this once). The process will take time, and patience is the wiser course.
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