The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[ rfe/rl banner ]

U.S., Russia Set To Sign Nuclear Arms Deal

April 07, 2010
By Gregory Feifer

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to accomplish his first major foreign-policy achievement by signing a historic nuclear arms deal with his Russian counterpart in Prague on April 8.

Although the treaty will reduce both sides' stockpiles relatively modestly, Obama hopes it will provide momentum for his key goals of improving relations with Moscow and ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

The signing ceremony at Prague Castle of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) takes place almost a year to the day after Obama called for a nuclear-free world in front of huge crowds just outside the castle's gates.

Announcing the new arms deal with Russia last month, Obama said the pact shows the United States and Russia are prepared to lead by example.

"While this aspiration will not be reached in the near future, I put forward a comprehensive agenda to pursue it -- to stop the spread of these weapons; to secure vulnerable nuclear materials from terrorists; and to reduce nuclear arsenals," Obama said. "A fundamental part of that effort was the negotiation of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia."

'Toward A Nuclear-Free Future'

Obama had hoped the deal would be signed in December. That's when the agreement it succeeds, the 1991 START treaty, expired. But Moscow prolonged negotiations for four months with new demands. Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised the deal on April 6.

"The new treaty reflects the transition of Russian-U.S. cooperation in matters of disarmament and nonproliferation to a higher level," Lavrov said. "It lays down the foundation of a new strategic and military relationship and strengthens mutual and global security. The treaty presents new opportunities for further development of the Russian-U.S. bilateral partnership."

Obama last month called the agreement "another step forward in leaving behind the legacy of the 20th century."

He said the new treaty "makes progress in several areas. It cuts -- by about a third -- the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy. It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies."

The treaty -- which must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and the Russian parliament -- would cut the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 for each side, down from the current limit of 2,200. The deal would reduce the number of bombers and missiles, the so-called delivery vehicles, to 700 for each side. And it calls for a regime of 18 inspections a year.

The signing -- in the capital of a former Soviet bloc country that's now a member of NATO -- comes after Obama unveiled a new U.S. nuclear-weapons policy that will narrow Washington's conditions for using nuclear arms and stop the development of new weapons. Next week, Obama will also host dozens of world leaders for a nuclear-security summit in Washington next.

Warming Russian Relations

On top of encouraging nuclear disarmament, Washington has seen the arms deal with Moscow as a way to launch a new policy of engagement with Moscow, after tensions reached Cold War levels following Russia's invasion of its neighbor and U.S. ally Georgia in 2008.

Analysts say the treaty is more significant for politics than security. Military expert Aleksandr Golts says it calls for only minor reductions on both sides. He says the deal is far more significant as a trust-building measure.

"It opens the opportunity to cooperate in many other real security issues such as Afghanistan or cooperation on Iran or any other varieties of cooperation that could be very fruitful for both sides," the Moscow-based analyst says.

The deal comes after more than a year of tough, deadlock-plagued negotiations that ended four months past deadline -- and then just barely. Russia insisted the agreement should apply not only to nuclear warheads, but also to the missiles, submarines, and bombers that carry them. Moscow also insisted a deal must be linked to U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Europe. Washington said the two issues are separate.

A deal was all-but reached several times. Moscow applauded Obama's decision to scrap former President George W. Bush's missile-defense plans. But when Romania announced it would host part of Obama's planned new missile shield, Moscow balked. It took a telephone call from an exasperated Obama to convince Medvedev Washington would walk away from the deal rather than give in to Russian demands.

Missile Defense

The new treaty contains a nonbinding, unilateral statement by Russia linking arms control to missile defense, but analysts say Moscow ended up giving in on that and all other major issues. Golts says that's because the Kremlin's demands "were artificial," based on a Cold War superpower status that no longer exists.

"It was a Russian idea to pretend to play the game that both sides are still in a situation of mutual nuclear deterrence," he says. "But it was clear to everybody that it's a parody." Golts says the Kremlin dragged out negotiations as long as possible because its main interest has been to show it's a great power.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on April 6 restated Moscow's threat to withdraw from the treaty if it decides the U.S. missile shield threatens its security. "When and if our assessment of the implementation of these plans shows they're reaching the level of a strategic missile-defense system, and if our military experts assess this level as posing a threat to Russia's strategic nuclear forces, then we will have the right to use the treaty's provision [regarding withdrawal]," he said.

Washington sees the arms deal as a first step toward another, deeper round of nuclear arms cuts that will be far more difficult to achieve. But Golts believes Moscow is interested in further talks because its ageing nuclear arsenal is deteriorating and it will have to make further cuts with or without a new treaty.

For now, veteran foreign-policy scholar Georgy Mirsky says the new treaty will help change the tone of relations by quieting anti-American propaganda in Moscow. "It will be a lot more difficult now for all those anti-American people, those who are full of hatred and dislike for America, to teach people that America is to blame for everything," he says.

But Mirsky says while today's signing will improve the climate of relations for now, the treaty itself will affect neither the balance of power between the two sides, nor, probably, the nature of their relations.


Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Join the mailing list