November 12, 2010 | Commentary on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Dear Mr. Nuclear Fantasy

The New START signed between Russia and the United States this past April is thought to be the foundation of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Moscow. According to the White House’s “reset” narrative, Russia and the United States have developed a real partnership. This, we are led to believe, is demonstrated not only by the signing of the New START, but also Russian support for UN sanctions on Iran, cancellation of the S-300 missile sales to the ayatollahs, and a transit agreement to move troops and supplies into Afghanistan through Russian territory and airspace. Russia’s moves on Iran policy are certainly a step in the right direction. But a closer look at the bilateral relationship reveals that the cost of cooperation has been high—and the concessions agreed to by the Obama administration have been far-reaching.

When it comes to the New START, Washington has agreed to limitations on its ballistic-missile-defense options (something the administration’s representatives vehemently deny); ambiguous language on rail-mobile ballistic missiles; vague limitations on conventional global-strike systems and a significant degradation of the START verification regime from 1991. All these measures limit U.S. defense options not vis-à-vis Russia, but North Korea, China, and in the future, Iran; and provide the Russian Federation’s Strategic Rocket Forces with unfair advantages.

Furthermore, the treaty’s preamble, the Russian unilateral statement on missile defense and remarks by senior Russian officials suggest an attempt by Russia to limit or constrain current and future U.S. missile-defense capabilities by threatening to withdraw from the treaty should the U.S. expand its missile defenses “qualitatively” or “quantitatively.” Apparently, it will be up to Russia to define these quantitative and/or qualitative criteria, forcing U.S. decision-makers to look to Moscow every time a significant missile defense decision has to be made.

In an eerie echo of the Reagan-Gorbachev debates on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) of the mid-1980s, the Russians are pushing for limits on U.S. missile-defense programs. Such constraints are so essential to Moscow—which is lagging behind technologically and does not want to spend tens of billions of dollars on a similar system amidst an expensive and controversial military reform—that it is threatening to withdraw from the treaty if these curbs are not met.

Certainly not everyone has gotten on board with the White House agenda, jeopardizing the White House’s ability to ensure advice and consent for New START by the Senate. The legislative history of the New START has been stormy already. And many within the Senate have been less than enthusiastic. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to recommend the treaty for advice and consent by the full Senate last September, it appended language about both the fact that the United States does not see the New START as imposing limits on missile-defense Prompt Global Strike systems, and that it covers rail-mobile ballistic missiles under the treaty’s limits.

Of course, these stipulations, which are contained in the resolution of ratification to New START, have made the Russians quite unhappy. To wit, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee, loyal to the Kremlin, on October 29 proposed to his committee that it reconsider its earlier position in favor of ratification.

Earlier this month, the Duma International Affairs Committee decided to delay consideration of the legislation that would authorize the ratification of New START by the full Duma. According to leading Russian analysts, this action, taken without a formal vote, does not amount to an annulment of the earlier treaty endorsement by the committee. However, the equivalent on the U.S. side would be the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommending that the full Senate suspend action. The Duma committee’s recommendation to delay ratification necessarily raises several questions for the U.S. Senate that the Obama administration must answer before it considers the treaty.

Says Kosachev: “First, it is specially emphasized that [the U.S. senators understand that] strategic-range non-nuclear weapon systems do not fall under the treaty, but it is virtually impossible to tell whether a missile that has already been launched is carrying a nuclear or non-nuclear warhead or not.”

The second understanding presumes that “the Americans are trying to apply the New START Treaty to rail-mobile ICBMs in case they are built,” Kosachev said. That is correct. According to the Department of State’s Fact Sheet on Rail-Mobile Launchers of ICBMs and their Missiles, both rail-mobile missiles and launchers would be subject to the treaty should a Party to the treaty develop and deploy them.

Last, Kosachev stated that “… they [U.S. Senators] say at the same time that the New START Treaty will on no account limit the Pentagon’s efforts toward deploying missile defenses.”

Overall, many experts believe that the treaty is disadvantageous to the United States. Its approach to missile defense is wrong; and in the end, it will also qualitatively and quantitatively improve Russia’s nuclear balance-of-power position. Transparency is the key when developing a position toward the New START. In view of Russian objections and actions, it is important for the Senate to learn what kinds of behind-closed-doors agreements were reached over missile defense, prompt global strike, and rail-based missiles in order to garner Russian agreement to the New START. For example, what were the concessions that have not been disclosed to the Senate, including on missile defense? The Duma (and the Kremlin) might suspect that the administration is incapable of delivering on promises the negotiators may have secretly made. That is why it is crucial for the Senators to review negotiating records.

On top of this, the political mandate of the lame-duck Senate has expired and six more Republicans are joining the upper chamber. If the lame-duck Senate does not ratify the treaty before the new year, the ratification will only be more difficult next year, when the new Senate commences its work. A senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer tells me that the lame-duck Senate agenda is bursting at the seams, and there may be no time for ratification before year’s end. Come January, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee composition will change; the treaty will be returned to committee, which will require a new round of hearings and deliberations. In short, the probability of passing the treaty in the next Congress is somewhat smaller than in the current one.

Most problematic is the underlying logic of the administration for the New START. It is the first arms-control treaty on the road to Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons, as the president repeatedly proclaimed in April 2009 in Prague and in his UN speeches. This is simply an unrealistic policy. In addition, there is a significant probability that if Obama allows Iran to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and possibly Turkey will develop their own nuclear weapons.

Obama’s “nuclear zero” fantasy is not shared by the national leaderships of Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea or Iran. I sat through a meeting in which Vladimir Putin sneered at the idea of a nuclear-free world. “We will do everything necessary to protect our country’s security,” Putin said. And Russia is following his orders, modernizing its ICBM and submarine-launched missile arsenals. So is China.

The administration’s enthusiasm for the New START and “global nuclear zero” are taking America on a wrong trajectory. Congress should not allow this to happen.

Ariel Cohen is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The National Interest