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Moscow Times
June 11, 2009
Finished From the START
By Michael Bohm
Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.

Three weeks before the U.S.-Russia summit in Moscow, it appears that the two sides won't be able to agree on vital negotiating positions on a new nuclear arms control agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires Dec. 5.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is Russia's opposition to U.S. plans to place elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as longer-term U.S. plans to build a global system. Although Moscow fully understands that the project today is pie-in-the-sky from a technological perspective, it also understands that the United States is working on upgrading the technology, while Russia is doing little in this regard. Moscow has taken a strong position on this issue: The new agreement must contain a U.S. commitment to limit -- or even forego -- its missile defense plans.

Russia's position is understandable. Let's say, for example, that both sides agree to limit the number of nuclear warheads to 1,500 each -- from 3,900 on the Russian side and 5,500 from the U.S. side. But if, given a big technological breakthrough, Washington is able to build a missile defense system in five or 10 years that can shield the United States with close to 100 percent accuracy against Russia's 1,500 warheads, it would need to be placed in Greenland or Alaska, not Central Europe.

Moscow is correct about one thing, however. If Washington were to develop an effective missile defense system, it would fundamentally undermine nuclear parity and the concept of mutually assured destruction, both of which have served as the cornerstone of containment and a protector against another world war between the superpowers for more than 60 years.

The only problem is that no U.S. president would ever formally commit to limiting his country's missile defense plans. There is a good reason why former U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, whose 1974 protocol limited missile defense installments to one for each side. And Bush's treaty withdrawal had little to do with Russia -- a fact that is always a big disappointment for the Kremlin. He was much more concerned about the rapid spread of nuclear weapons beyond the original five members of the nuclear club and the high risk of nuclear terrorism. Perhaps International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei best spoke of this danger when he said in mid-May that the number of nuclear powers could easily double in a few years, largely in the Middle East.

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA -- once the foundation for controlling the spread of nuclear arms beyond the initial five nuclear powers -- have now proven largely ineffective. Therefore, improving missile defense technology and capabilities is the best, and perhaps only, self-defense option in this dangerous new nuclear age. U.S. President Barack Obama is thus unlikely to back down from missile defense to cater to Kremlin concerns about Russia's loss of nuclear parity. The most he can do politically is to delay making a decision on missile defense, waiting two or three years until the U.S economy recovers. Even if, in theory, Obama were dead set on meeting Moscow's conditions, the U.S. Senate would never ratify a treaty that ties U.S. hands on missile defense.

During the July summit, Obama could say to President Dmitry Medvedev, "OK, let's agree to reduce warheads to 1,500, and as a sovereign nation you are free to build your own missile defense system if you think U.S.-Russian parity will be destroyed." Or Obama could say, "Let's work on building a missile defense system together." But both proposals would be disingenuous and meaningless. Obama understands that Russia doesn't have the resources to build its own global missile defense. He also knows full well that, despite all the pleasant talk of U.S-Russian partnership, the two countries are many years away from reaching the level of trust to build a missile defense system together, even if all of the possible "reset" buttons are pushed simultaneously.

A second stumbling block concerns the U.S. desire to preserve its "return potential" -- that is, after reducing the number of warheads to 1,500 each, Washington would want to maintain the ability to store its dismantled 4,000 or so warheads in warehouses, in case they need to be quickly reinstalled on missiles during a time of war. More important, however, the United States would want to retain its current 1,200 delivery vehicles -- mainly ground-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. Even if the replacement treaty to START requires the United States to remove the nuclear warheads from the missiles and bombers, Washington wants to retain the right to keep them as part of its conventional forces. The Pentagon says these highly sophisticated and accurate conventional weapons are needed, among other things, to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

For Moscow, this position is unacceptable. The Russians believe that arms reduction means destroying delivery vehicles above the agreed-upon number. (START, for example, stipulated that each side can maintain no more than 1,600 nuclear delivery vehicles.) If the United States destroys the delivery vehicles capable of carrying warheads, the warheads held in storage are far less important because stored warheads without the corresponding delivery vehicles are largely meaningless. But if Washington retains its return potential, it would gain a huge double advantage over Moscow in terms of warheads and missiles because Russia's return potential is much weaker.

But dwarfing all these issues is Russia's fundamentally negative stance on nuclear arms control, which virtually guarantees that there will be no further reductions in nuclear weapons. Despite public statements to the contrary, Russia has no serious desire to cut its nuclear warheads to 1,500, or by 62 percent. The reason is that nuclear arms reduction would a priori only weaken the Kremlin's position, while at the same time it would strengthen that of the United States. This may explain one reason behind Obama's "I have a dream" speech in Prague on April 5 regarding a nuclear-free world. If it were possible to achieve total global nuclear disarmament, U.S. military predominance -- which today is already greater than all other nations -- would increase exponentially.

Because its conventional forces are so much weaker than the United States', Russia's nuclear arsenal plays an overly large role in its military strategy. The United States can afford to bring down its number of nuclear warheads to 1,500 because of its superiority in conventional forces and technology, but Russia cannot. Moreover, Russian military hawks are counting the days to Dec. 5, when they can at last deploy MIRV-tipped Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose multiple warheads, decoys and re-entry vehicles can outmaneuver U.S. missile interceptors, according to Kremlin claims. (Russia is prohibited from deploying these missiles under START.)

Negotiating a replacement treaty for START is big deal -- particularly for Russia, which is nostalgic for the good old days of superpower summits and parity. Moreover, during the Cold War, U.S. treatment toward the Soviet Union confirmed for the Kremlin the Russian saying, " -- " ("If they fear you, it means that they respect you"). This situation, although hair-trigger at times, helped push both sides to reach agreement on landmark arms control treaties.

For the first time in the post-Cold War era, teams of meticulous Russian and U.S. arms control experts are once again negotiating a major arms controls agreement, shuttling back and forth between Moscow, Washington and other cities to work out the painstakingly minute details of bean-counting nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles and clarifying verification procedures and inspection rules.

Just like during the good old days.

The only problem is that these aren't the good old days. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union -- for better or worse -- and can no longer negotiate from the same position of strength. This means that despite all the energy spent on finding a replacement for START, the two sides are likely to walk away from the negotiating table empty handed.