June 1, 2011 | Commentary on Russia, National Security and Defense

Will U.S. Get Snookered (Again) by Russia in Nuke Talks?

The “road to zero” is getting crowded!

President Obama has long advocated reducing the number of nuclear weapons to “zero.” Now, other high-level U.S. officials — some current, some former — are pressing lawmakers to go further down that road than they did in the recent New START arms control treaty with Russia.

Specifically, they’re clamoring for deeper cuts in strategic nuclear weapons, the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (a treaty that would keep us from even testing our aging nukes), and a treaty to reduce tactical (or short-range) nuclear weapons.

Last year, the Senate pushed for tactical weapons cuts because that’s where Russia holds a massive advantage. Russia reportedly has over 4,000 tactical nukes deployed along its borders with Europe. We have an estimated 200 there to protect our allies.

This imbalance wasn’t addressed in the New START treaty. So in the resolution ratifying New START, the Senate mandated that negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons start within one year of that treaty going into effect. The resolution further stipulates that the negotiations must “secure and reduce tactical nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner.”

So far, Russia isn’t biting. Instead, Moscow insists that we pull our tactical nukes out of Europe and bring ’em home before negotiations can start.

They’re setting other preconditions as well. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says talks on tactical nukes would be “impossible without [including] a set of other issues: an imbalance of conventional forces, missile defense, and the deployment of arms in space.” Of course, all these “issues” tilt in our favor today.

The Russians used the same kind of hard-headed tactics, with great success, in the New START negotiations. They sensed that they could get a very sweet deal from a U.S. administration bent on getting a treaty no matter what. And they did.

But agreeing to these egregious preconditions would produce extremely negative consequences for America. It would undermine both our national security and our relations with our NATO allies, who view our 200 tactical weapons and cooperative missile defense programs for Europe as proof of our commitment to their security. Pulling these defenses out would make them sitting ducks for Russia’s tactical weapons, unless Moscow pulled those weapons back.

And a pull-back on their part is virtually unthinkable for the Russians, because their military doctrine places such grave importance on their tactical nukes. Russian doctrine relies on tactical nuclear weapons, not only to defend Russia’s borders, but to intimidate and expand its influence as well. Russia sent that message loud and clear in 2009, when its Zapad war games simulated a tactical nuke strike against Poland.

Nothing we negotiate with Moscow should enshrine Russia’s massive advantage in these weapons. But the question remains: What will the administration offer to bring Russia to the table, if it’s not what Russia is demanding?

Sadly, we no longer have the kind of leverage we had — and didn’t use — in negotiating New START. Russia badly wanted and needed that treaty to reduce our strategic nuclear weapons advantage. And it masterfully kept tactical nukes out of the discussion while getting the administration to agree to reduce our arsenal while Moscow is actually allowed under the treaty to increase its strategic weapons count.

The new Senate may be our best leverage. Last year’s Senate may have demanded that these negotiations start, but no Senate has to live with an agreement that puts our people, our allies, and our troops in the battlefield at risk. It hasn’t relinquished its constitutional role of advice and consent.

Russia may balk at meeting until they get assurances that the administration will meet their preconditions. Fine. Let them balk as long as they want.

But let them also know that the only kind of agreement that merits the Senate’s consideration is one that, at a minimum: brings Russia’s numbers down to our levels; includes real verification measures that reveal exactly how many of these weapons Russia actually has; and has no limitations on where we deploy our tactical nukes, missile defenses or conventional forces.

James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’ s Foreign Policy Studies.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The Daily Caller