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Obama’s Moscow Summit – Which Way to START? July 5, 2009

Posted by SV in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are meeting in Moscow to discuss a successor to the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).  On the table for consideration (according to U.S. and/or Russian officials) are levels of deployed and stockpiled strategic nuclear warheads, strategic delivery systems (intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and bombers), and missile defense.  Off the table are nonstrategic (short-range) nuclear weapons, which the Russians hold in abundance.

Truly understanding the situation between Washington and Moscow requires a brief look at the numbers.  The United States deploys around 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads (and ~ 2,500 reserves) on less than 1,000 missiles and bombers.  Russia deploys about 2,700 strategic nuclear warheads (and thousands in reserve) on roughly 650 missiles and bombers.  In nonstrategic nukes, Russia holds a massive advantage (3,000-5,000) over the United States (400-500).  In terms of strategic delivery systems, the U.S. still has decades before most of its systems will need replaced, while many Russian systems will reach the end of their service lives within the next decade, reducing their numbers to around 330.

The Obama Administration, in its rush to conclude the START follow-on by the current treaty’s expiration date on December 5th, is therefore playing into the Russians’ hands.  By pushing for deep warhead cuts (the Russians will not go below 1,500 deployed) and considering a further reduction in the permitted number of strategic delivery vehicles, U.S. negotiators are essentially getting nothing for something.  Since the Russians will have to eliminate many of their aging warheads, missiles, and bombers with or without an arms control treaty, they are trying to maintain parity with the United States through a new START accord.  In return, the U.S. is getting something it would have gotten without having to reduce the survivability and flexibility of its nuclear arsenal.

Until recently, the Obama Administration was seemingly giving credence to Russian objections to a third missile defense site in Central Europe.  Even former Secretary of Defense (and nuclear abolitionist) William Perry (D) stated in House testimony that trading missile defense for Russian promises was absolutely unreasonable.  The president’s special assistant, Michael McFaul, stated last week the U.S. was “not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense.”  This is a step in the right direction.  Tying defensive conventional systems to offensive nuclear systems, which President Medvedev is still insisting on, is a relic of the Cold War “mutually assured destruction” thinking.

Therefore, the U.S. approach to the START follow-on has been fundamentally flawed.  By agreeing not to include nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the limits, the U.S. allowed Russia to maintain its biggest geopolitical advantage.  Many experts believe it is these “battlefield” nuke stockpiles that will be the likely source of any future nuclear terrorism or nuclear use by a state (Russia explicitly states they would be used to “de-escalate” an invasion of their homeland).  Furthermore, once U.S. warhead and delivery system levels have been drastically reduced, Washington will little leverage to urge Moscow to reduce its tactical nukes.

The arms control process is also misguided in the link some are attempting to make between a new START and “global zero,” the nuclear abolitionist movement.  The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission determined that complete nuclear disarmament required a “fundamental transformation of the world political order.”  Guiding a new treaty along what optimists consider a decades-long goal is a recipe for miscalculation and bad decisions.  The Obama Administration needs to take a step back, assess U.S. interests over the long term, and proceed with a modest START follow-on from there.  Idealism is one thing.  Dealing with the Russians about nuclear weapons is entirely different.

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