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The Nuclear Option: Russia Feels Like a "Junior Partner" in European Security, but Is Unlikely to Leave START, Say Analysts

Despite promises that ratification of the new START treaty would lead to a period of greater international cooperation in nuclear security, Russian politicians have been expressing dissatisfaction with NATO and the United States in recent weeks. Missile defense systems are once again the source of tension in Russia, which has claimed that Washington, along with NATO, is ignoring Russian security interests in seeking to install interceptor missiles in Central Europe, reigniting a disputed topic from the pre-"reset" George Bush era.

The Russian authorities have gone so far as to threaten to abandon the START agreement if Russia is not given "guarantees" about the missile systems, and President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday further warned that a breakdown could "throw us back in to the era of the Cold War."

Standing before a packed house at his Skolkovo technology and business center, Medvedev issued a strong warning to the United States over the issue of missile defense. "We [and America] are able to work out a model for cooperation in anti-rocket defense. If we don't work this out, then we'll have to take some responsive measures, which are not desirable, and then the issue will be about speeding up the development of the strike potential of our nuclear weapons."

President Medvedev was not the first to discuss Russia's discontent over its partnership with NATO and the United States in this sphere, but his words exhibited some of the strongest rhetoric over the issue since the ratification of the new START treaty. The United States made a surprise announcement in early May about its intentions to establish an important base for interceptor missiles in the small Romanian town of Deveselu. Following the announcement Russian officials said that they were "monitoring the situation closely" due to possible security concerns over the base. This has led to heightened rhetoric over the issue of missile defense over the past month, and Medvedev and Barack Obama are slated to discuss the issue at the G8 summit in late May.

The announcement over the Romanian base is indicative of an atmosphere where Russia seems like a "junior partner" to the United States and NATO in European nuclear security said Alexander Rahr, program director for Russia/Eurasia at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "After the signing of START a lot of things have gone wrong and it's not absolutely clear why," said Rahr. "The United States and NATO only want to offer Russia a junior partnership in protecting Europe and protecting Russia it seems, and if this is true, then we are going back into the era of Russia-NATO relationships during the Bush era."

Russia's stated interests are to increase cooperation between itself and NATO and the United States to develop a ballistic missile net for Europe. Barring a greater voice in the issue, Russian officials have threatened to leave the new START treaty. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had said earlier that Russia "cannot start cooperation on specific projects without legal guarantees that a future system will not be directed against our security interests," RIA Novosti reported. "The new START treaty may become hostage to the U.S. approach," he added.

Yet even such a declaration may not be enough for Russia's military advisors to the president, who would consider a promise on paper to be inadequate and non-binding, Evgeny Buzhinsky, an analyst at the Center for Political Research, told journalists at a press conference today. They would demand a guarantee either in the form of "not placing interceptor systems in certain regions, or the limitation of the technological development of interceptor systems, or a numerical limit on the number of actual interceptors," said Buzhinsky.

Commentators noted that despite the heated rhetoric, Russia would be unlikely to leave the START treaty due to missile defense. "I don't see the technical reasons for which Moscow could leave the treaty. Russia could only do this for political reasons," said Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Hudson Institute, in an interview with Radio Free Europe. Much of the rhetoric around the issue is politically motivated, noted Rahr, saying that the rhetoric might be tied to the coming elections.

Yet the United States also has elections set for the coming year, and president Obama is similarly constrained by seeming weak on defense. "I really fear that with the current American political landscape and in a pre-election year, it's unlikely we'll see much movement on the American side," said Buzhinsky.


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