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The Last Tango in Prague

Josef Stalin once said, “It’s not important how the people vote, but who is counting the votes.” This could also apply to counting the warheads in the New START agreement. Despite all the hyped-up talk about “30 percent reductions” in nuclear weapons in what U.S. President Barack Obama has called “the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades,” the real reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both sides are modest at best.

As Peter Baker reported in The New York Times, Russia and the United States have agreed to apply “creative accounting” to pad the reductions on both sides to get to the much-desired 30 percent figure -— at least on paper. For example, one trick was to count the 20 warheads on B-52 bombers as only one. At the end of the day, the real net cuts, according to Hans Kristenson of the Federation of American Scientists, will be only 100 U.S. deployed warheads and 190 Russian ones.

Based on Kristenson’s figures of deployed warheads currently on the U.S. side (2,100) and the Russian side (2,600), the arsenal of deployed warheads will be reduced by only 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Thus, creative accounting has produced creative disarmament.

But this was not the only nuclear sleight of hand. When the two sides announced the final number — 1,550 deployed warheads — the key qualifier is “deployed.” The roughly 2,000 non-deployed warheads stored in U.S. military warehouses were not included in the New START. (Russia has far fewer stored warheads.) These stored warheads can be placed back on U.S. strategic delivery vehicles in a matter of several weeks. If the United States were serious about disarmament, it would have included stored warheads as well in the new agreement.

During the 16-month talks, Russia’s objections focused on two issues: refitting strategic launchers with conventional weapons and missile defense.

The Russians made it clear that the new START should limit strategic delivery vehicles regardless of whether they carried nuclear weapons. The old START of 1991 treated all strategic launchers as nuclear a priori. Since 1991, however, the United States has developed the capability to refit strategic delivery vehicles with conventional weapons. The principal U.S. position was that the New START — like the old one — should focus on nuclear weapons only, not conventional ones. Refitting excess strategic launchers (above the 800 limit) with high-precision conventional weapons is a key U.S. military objective. Russia is against the United States refitting strategic launchers mainly because Russia is not refitting its own launchers. Notably, Russia listed these refitted, high-precision weapons as the country’s fourth-biggest external danger in its new military doctrine, released in February.

At the same time, Russia’s concern about the possibility of mistaking an Ohio-class nuclear submarine, for example, that has been refitted with conventional missiles is legitimate — one that could have potentially apocalyptic consequences for both sides in the event of a misidentified launch. Thus, it is crucial that the two sides return to the Memorandum of Agreement of 2000 to build a U.S.-Russian center for data exchanges on early warning systems and missile launches to avoid confusion over whether a missile launch is nuclear or non-nuclear. This is an important joint project that would build trust and give a big boost to the “reset” initiative.

But the biggest and most important issue raised by the Russian side was its favorite bogeyman — missile defense. Recall over the past year the countless statements fr om Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev and the military top brass about how U.S. missile defense would “weaken Russia’s strategic forces” and how it could, in theory, allow Washington to deliver a nuclear first strike against Russia and be fully protected against a retaliatory strike — or at the very least allow Washington to use its “overwhelming nuclear advantage” to “blackmail” Moscow.

The U.S. side — and the Russian side as well — knows perfectly well that the U.S. “strategic missile defense system,” which consists of only 30 interceptors in Alaska and California, is useless against Russia’s 800 delivery vehicles and 1,550 warheads, the New START limits. Even the most ambitious plans to upgrade the U.S. regional missile defense system in Europe are slated for 2020 at the earliest, the year that the New START expires. Therefore, linking START with U.S. missile defense was a bogus argument fr om the beginning.

So why all the fabricated objections about missile defense if, in the end, Russia walked away fr om its position to include a “legally binding” lim it on U.S. missile defense deployment in the treaty?

In reality, missile defense was only a bluff and obstruction tactic. The real benefit from placing missile defense as the supposed “make-or-break” condition was to play the role of the spoiler in the New START talks — at least for as long as Russia could get away with it. Russia understood that Obama very much wanted to have the treaty signed by Dec. 5, when the old START expired, or by Dec. 10, when Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his nuclear disarmament efforts.

But Russia was driven by more than just a desire to rain on Obama’s parade. It wanted to make sure that Washington would have to work hard to get Moscow’s consent. Perhaps this shows that the eternal Russian question, ““ы мен€ уважаешь?” (Do you respect me?), is just as important when seasoned diplomats are negotiating a major arms control agreement as it is when a bunch of guys are sitting around drinking vodka.

But Russia took the obstruction game a bit too far. By February, negotiators had already agreed that Obama’s missile defense switch from its strategic “third position” in Poland and the Czech Republic to a much smaller, regional system based in Romania was acceptable, and it seemingly dropped their objection to missile defense deployment. In fact, on Feb. 14, during a visit to Nicaragua, Lavrov said the two sides had reached agreement on “97 percent” of the treaty. Then, out of the blue, Russia once again raised the sham missile defense issue. A frustrated Obama called Medvedev on March 13 and basically said, “OK, Dmitry. The game is over. Enough of the shenanigans. You and I will both be at the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in New York in May. We need to get serious about signing the New START now.” Two weeks later, on March 26, the final deal was announced.

In the end, both sides can claim PR victories in resetting relations and in making further steps — albeit modest — toward nuclear disarmament. In addition, Russia can claim a few small victories for itself. It is happy that the new inspection regime of test launches for missiles is far less intrusive than under START. This will allow Russia to modernize its strategic missile force in maximum secrecy. Second, the Kremlin can claim that it received “missile defense linkage” in the treaty’s preamble, although its language is conspicuously vague and theoretical and in no way lim its the United States from developing missile defense.

But perhaps most important of all, Russia experienced the pleasant nostalgia of Cold War-era arms control agreements — one of the few areas wh ere Moscow can still project its global influence as a superpower. Now, with a little imaginative spin, Russia can go to the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in May as equal partners with the United States and say it fulfilled its global disarmament responsibility as “the other nuclear superpower.”

Russia should enjoy the moment while it lasts.

“The new agreement will become the last in the series of Cold War-era treaties,” political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said in Kommersant. “Nuclear security in a multipolar world will no longer be decided between the United States and Russia.”

If Lukyanov is correct, negotiating the New START was Russia’s last dance on the nuclear world stage. Now the Kremlin will have to look elsewhere to pursue its superpower ambitions.

Michael Bohm is opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.

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