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Analysis & Opinion
25.03.10 Nuclear Procrastination
By Roland Oliphant

Russia and the United States are promising for the umpteenth time that that they will sign a replacement Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) “soon.” But they’ve been promising the same thing ever since U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow in July last year, and have constantly postponed deadlines. Will they really keep the April 8 deadline being touted by Russia’s Ambassador in the Czech Republic, or will they flake again? And is there any common interest in signing at all?

One would think that experience would have got the better of hope by now. But once again, the world’s media is enthusiastically repeating “claims” from the White House and the Kremlin that the signing of a replacement Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) is “imminent;” that the new deal is “almost” complete,” and that Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are “poised” to sign it.

START was cited as one of the (very few) areas where the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations could produce concrete dividends, and the sides have been negotiating a replacement treaty since May 2009. First rumor had it that it could be ready for Obama’s visit to Russia in July, which would have been a nice capstone to his reconciliatory trip. It wasn’t, but Obama and Medvedev did sign a memorandum of “joint understanding” on a follow-up to START I, which was due to expire on December 5.

When Obama was named the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on October 9, there was added pressure to get the deal done by December, when he was scheduled to collect the prize. But first the December 5 deadline, then the December 10 award ceremony, came and went with no signatures. It wasn’t even ready for signing by December 18, when the two presidents met at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. After that, the two sides stopped setting deadlines, instead offering regular promises that a deal was “close.” As recently as March 16, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought it up again, proposing to sign the deal in Kiev.

The latest excitement has been stirred by briefings from high-ranking officials in Moscow, Washington and Prague, repeating the “soon” and “close” mantra. There is even a new deadline – Russian Ambassador to the Czech Republic Alexei Fedotov has been quoted as saying that the deal would be signed on April 8 in the Czech capital. But haven’t they cried wolf too many times already?

Everyone seems convinced that this time they are going to sign, but it is not clear where this sense of confidence comes from. Oksana Antonenko, a political analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, cited the looming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12 and 13 as leaving “no more room for retreat,” but conceded that such seemingly inviolable deadlines had been missed in the past. Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst and deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said the Russians had decided that if they played hard to get any longer “the Americans would lose interest.” But this deadline on Washington’s patience seems arbitrary.
But if they have finally come to an understanding, what was it that took them so long?

The nub of the deal has never been in much doubt – the two sides will agree to reduce their warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 a piece. The arguments have apparently revolved around technical aspects – the Russians are said to have been uncomfortable with some of the verification methods, and, most importantly, have sought to link the issue of strategic offensive arms with U.S. plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe.

Antonenko reckons the biggest obstacle appeared after the announcement in early February that Romania would host U.S. interceptor missiles. That provoked Russia to return to its old insistence that progress on START should be conditional on missile defense – a position Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, rumored to be very unhappy about the deal, has been pushing continuously. “But none of this, not even the missile defense issue, has anything to do with security or military strategy,” said Golts.

Numbers of warheads will fall on either side anyway – the Russian arsenal is shrinking as a result of natural aging, and the Americans could well slash theirs in the framework of a unilateral strategic review without a new START. And Golts insists that the Russian political establishment is only pretending that the U.S. missile defense could have any kind of impact on Russia’s offensive capability. But by keeping the U.S. locked in negotiations they get to prove that they are an equal power and wring some politically useful concessions. “The whole thing is political,” said Golts.

For Obama, on the other hand, “not to sign a treaty before going into the Washington conference would be a huge blow to his credibility and would make it very hard for him to make any progress at all,” said Antonenko. That has probably given the Russians some kind of negotiating advantage, but only temporarily. “The Americans need the treaty to be signed in this timeframe; if that deadline is missed, they’ll be less likely to negotiate and make concessions,” noted Antonenko. Nonetheless, they should be able to squeeze some useful concessions out of the Americans before the April 8.

In short then, a new START treaty means a boost to Obama’s credibility and provides both governments with a weapon against those who opposed the “reset” in the first place. But most important of all, it would send a message to members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that the world’s biggest nuclear powers are ready to honor their commitments.

Amid fears that an Iranian bomb could spark a nuclear arms race in the gulf, the ongoing deadlock on the North Korean nuclear question and a growing interest in civilian nuclear technology, the NPT is under serious strain. And “if the NPT ceases to be effective, then we’re on the brink of a period of nuclear proliferation, the like of which the world has not seen for decades,” warned Antonenko. Obama and Medvedev might make a serious step toward averting such a nightmare. But don’t hold your breath.
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