Arms control to start U.S.-Russia thaw
Arms control is back and will thaw icy relations between the United States and Russia this year, but how far the new detente goes depends on the truculent mood in Moscow.
The potential exists for a grand bargain encompassing cooperation on the global financial crisis, Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament, missile defense, conventional armed forces and NATO enlargement.
But there are plenty of landmines on the road. Differences over the future of Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics on Russia’s borders, are the most obvious obstacles.
After eight years of disdain for arms treaties under George W. Bush, U.S. President Barack Obama is set to propose a radical negotiated reduction in nuclear missiles and warheads.
Expect an initiative before Obama’s first visit to Europe in April for a pact to replace the U.S.-Soviet Start-1 strategic arms reduction treaty, which expires at the end of this year.
Vice President Joe Biden may give a foretaste of U.S. ideas at the Munich Security Conference next weekend.
“The prospects for forward movement are reasonably good because we now have an administration in Washington which actually believes in arms control,” says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution think-tank.
Talbott, the leading U.S. government official on relations with Russia in the 1990s, expects Obama to postpone deployment of a planned missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which has infuriated Russia.
But he is skeptical of a broader rapprochement because of what he calls Moscow’s “sour geopolitical mood”.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have fiercely opposed the missile shield, as well as U.S.-led efforts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. They see both moves as attempts to encircle and marginalize Russia.
Obama cannot abandon either policy without alienating key constituencies at home and in eastern Europe, but he has good grounds to put both on hold while he explores the prospects for cooperation with Moscow and for direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program.
Russia would be expected in return to allow a tightening of U.N. sanctions on Iran and to suspend deliveries of S300 air defense missiles to the Islamic Republic, which could make any U.S. or Israeli air strike more difficult.
This is important in a year when the major powers will be focused on trying to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment, which the West is convinced is aimed at developing a bomb.
One of Tehran’s arguments is that the nuclear powers have failed to fulfill their pledge in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty to work towards general nuclear disarmament.
Almost 20 years after the Cold War ended, the United States and Russia still have arsenals of more than 10,000 warheads each that are costly to maintain and make no military sense since modern wars mostly involve precision air power, highly mobile strike forces and paramilitary police.
They can afford to scrap at least 90 percent of their stockpiles while maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent.
They should seek to abolish short-range missiles which are the most destabilizing because they leave the shortest warning time and require split-second “use-them-or-lose-them” decisions by military commanders.
A bold nuclear disarmament initiative would have bipartisan support in the United States, where a quartet of elder statesmen including former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz has advocated such a step.
Their goal is to try to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to states such as Iran and to terrorist organizations by having major atomic powers set the example while tightening global controls on technology and fissile materials.
Whether such an initiative will launch a new era of U.S.-Russian detente is uncertain.
Oksana Antonenko, senior fellow on Russia and the former Soviet countries at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says arms control alone cannot be the engine of a better relationship because suspicion on both sides is so deep.
“It is hard to see who in the Obama team will advocate a strategic rapprochement with Russia. Russia isn’t on their radar screen at all,” she said.
Moscow is more concerned about stabilizing its economy and ensuring its place in the new world order arising from the financial crisis, in which the big emerging economies will have more sway at the expense of the Group of Eight including Russia.
Oil prices have fallen from $147 to $40 a barrel since last July, the Russian stock market has lost 75 percent of its value and the Kremlin faces street protests over its economic policy.
This could make Russia’s leaders more inclined to seek accommodation with the West, to reassure investors including Russian businessmen, or it could prompt them to play the nationalist card.
Putin’s speech in Davos raised hopes of the former but his tone and behavior at home, including plans for a big increase in military spending, point towards the latter.
Obama cannot make that choice for Russia, but he can give its leaders reasons to choose the former over the latter.
For previous columns by Paul Taylor, click here.