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Moscow News
May 15, 2009
Linkage is everything in Russian-US nuclear talks
By Anna Arutunyan

When Russian and US officials formally begin talks in Moscow on May 19 on a new arms control treaty, it will be something like a scene from an old Western: each side is waiting for the other to draw first.

As the only comprehensive document limiting strategic nuclear warheads for two nations that possess 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons stockpiles, START-1, which expires in December, is on everyone's agenda - but how to resolve the endless bargaining points is a different matter.

"From the tactical standpoint, each side is waiting for the other to present proposals first because it's easier to criticise the other party's plan than to come up with your own without losing out," said Yury Fedorov, a security expert and an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House.

This latest attempt to draft a new treaty will involve direct bargaining chips - like the US plans for a missile shield in Europe, cooperation on Iran, and provisions to count stored warheads together with "deployed" warheads - but also some indirect geopolitical challenges - like NATO expansion on the one hand and Russia's pledge to provide transit support to troops in Afghanistan on the other. This conflicted tangle of interests stands as the chief hurdle on the way to the "reset" button proposed by US Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year.

Since Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev met on the eve of the G20 summit in London on April 1, Russia has been making the type of provisions it would like addressed in the new treaty increasingly clear.

Store or destroy?

"We are destroying warheads, Americans are storing them," said Yevgeny Yevstafiyev, a Russian defense expert and retired general. "They have return potential. And we are not monitoring this. It's a very important question and a lot of spears will be broken over it." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was more diplomatic.

"We think the main thing is having an agreement that includes all warheads and all carriers. As for the warheads in storage, it is important to understand how they will be counted," Lavrov was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying. But Moscow was "not categorically saying no' to those positions that the Americans are presenting."

The roots of the problem go back to the end of the Cold War in 1991.

That year, the START-1 treaty was signed, summing up two decades of arms limitation talks that began as SALT-1 under Brezhnev and Nixon, then progressed to the INF Treaty under Gorbachev and Reagan, and finally spelled out a comprehensive road map for slashing both sides' nuclear warhead arsenal by over 40 per cent.

Both sides acknowledge just how valuable START-1 was because it outlined the specifics of mutual monitoring. Moscow and Washington complied with the limitations, slashing their arsenals. Then, in the spirit of further disarmament, Bush and Putin signed SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty, in 2002, further cutting not only warhead arsenals, but the number of delivery vehicles, or various types of missiles that carry the nuclear warhead. The problem with SORT, however, was that it did not spell out how each side would monitor the other.

Today, there is no easy solution, said Fedorov.

"To make sure that no one is storing its warheads, is necessary to monitor and verify the implementation of the treaty. But for that to happen, mutual inspector teams need access to storage of nuclear warheads and all production facilities where the warheads are created and destroyed. Yet neither the US nor Russia will allow foreign experts to visit these facilities, because there is very sensitive information there. Russia is demanding something which it will never be able to allow itself."

Direct linkage'

The missile shield that Washington wants to set up in Eastern Europe would have been regulated by a different sort of treaty - the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - had the US not withdrawn from that in 2002. But now Moscow, angry over the new missile shield that it feels is directed against Russia rather than Iran, wants the issue back on the table. In the jargon of military diplomacy, it is creating "direct linkage" between missile defense and strategic offensive weapons.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described this "linkage" in an interview to Japanese media ahead of his trip to Tokyo this week: "One needn't be an expert to understand: if one party wants or would have an umbrella against all kinds of threats, this party would develop an illusion that it is allowed to do anything and then the aggressiveness of its actions will increase numerously, and the threat of global confrontation will reach a very dangerous level."

In turn, Washington has attempted to create "direct linkage" between the missile shield and Iran. From the US perspective, the issues are logically linked: Washington insists that the interceptors in Poland are aimed to counter what it sees as a threat coming from Teheran. If Moscow can help eliminate the threat, then there will be no need for missile interceptors.

But Moscow has refused. "It means that we will have to stop all military and technical cooperation with Iran," said Yevstafiyev. "We will lose political manouvring space. We cannot accept that."

But Federov thinks that officials in Moscow are well aware that the missile shield is not aimed at them. "I believe that Moscow supposes that the Iranian problem is a bigger headache for US and Israel than it is for Moscow. Therefore, it is a lever that Moscow can use to exert pressure on Washington. Iran is something of a bargaining chip."

Georgia, NATO, Afghanistan

When Obama and Medvedev meet for talks in Moscow in July, the START-1 issue will be examined in the context of a myriad of other problems. Moscow has underlined that it sees NATO expansion - and its friendliness with former Soviet Georgia - a direct threat to its security. Russia, which recently pledged transit support for NATO troops in Afghanistan, feels snubbed. But the US believes that Russia was behind Kyrgyzstan's decision to close the US airbase in Manas.

The recent diplomatic row between Russia and NATO in Brussels is not helping matters. These indirect issues are compounding the contentious points of any new arms control deal.

Altogether, the Russian side has been voicing its concerns - short of actually naming the bargaining chips - as it strives to improve its bargaining position ahead of next week's preliminary talks.

Number crunching

What the treaties say


Limits the number of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles and warheads attributed to them so that seven years after entry into force aggregate numbers do not exceed:

1,600 for deployed ICBMs SLBMs and their associated launchers, and deployed Heavy Bombers, including 154 for deployed Heavy ICBMs and their associated launchers

6,000 for warheads attributed to deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and Heavy Bombers

4,900 warheads attributed to deployed ICBMs and SLBMs

Includes a verification regime


US-Russian Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reduction (Also known as 'The Moscow Treaty')

Signed May 2002

In 2001, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin announced plans for deeper cuts in strategic nuclear warheads

Both sides to reduce their arsenals to 1,700-2,200 strategic nuclear warheads by December 31, 2012

As a first step, US deactivated all 50 of its 10-warhead Peacekeeper ICBMs and removed four Trident submarines from strategic service

ABM Treaty

US-Soviet Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems

Signed in 1972, US withdrew in 2002

US and Soviet Union agree each may have only two ABM deployment areas, so restricted and so located that they cannot provide a nationwide ABM defence or become the basis for developing one.

The Treaty permits each side to have one limited ABM system to protect its capital

Permits another to protect an ICBM launch area.