Laura Rozen has a piece in Politico today on Russia’s heel-dragging approach to the “New START” arms-control talks. “Sources in and out of the [Obama] administration are saying Russia may not feel it needs to sign a new agreement soon,” she reports. “And perhaps not in time for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference that the Obama administration is hosting in New York in May.” Predictably, her analysis focuses on Russian domestic politics (“haggling, fighting internally”) and the Russians’ persistent objections to U.S. missile-defense proposals. Obama hasn’t succeeded in satisfying Moscow’s skepticism about the latter; shifting our concept from silo-based interceptors in Poland to road-mobile launchers in Romania has failed to change Russian minds.
But considering only these factors is like trying to account for the rain without looking up at the sky. What’s driving Russia’s lack of urgency about a new arms-control treaty is Obama’s determination to reduce our nuclear arsenal unilaterally. The Russians have no reason to sweat out a treaty agreement that’s binding on them if they’re going to get effective U.S. commitments without one.
The policy reportedly emerging from Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), outlined in a New York Times article this weekend, appears full of reasons for Russia to hang back on New START. Obama’s intention to halve the existing inventory of about 5,400 nuclear warheads goes well beyond the mutual reduction goal of the Bush-Putin SORT Treaty of 2002, which envisioned 4,600 warheads for the U.S. by 2012. Obama has also cut funding to the Pentagon’s development program for a low-yield nuclear weapon to attack hardened and deeply-buried targets, and he reportedly will scrap the development altogether with implementation of his NPR. This, of course, is the kind of weapon needed to deal effectively with suspect underground facilities in Iran and North Korea.
Moreover, key Congressional Democrats are demanding NPR language that would explicitly commit the U.S. to using our nuclear arsenal solely for the deterrence of nuclear strikes – a short-sighted posture that could not be reversed in the future without precipitating political crises. The Pentagon prefers a more ambiguous formulation, and the outcome of this policy debate is uncertain. But the unprecedented political momentum of the Capitol Hill “deterrence-only” advocates will have the attention of foreign observers from Moscow to Beijing to Tehran.
Obama’s express hope is to set an example for the world with these unilateral reductions and renunciations. By making them, however, he thoroughly undermines the New START negotiations. Cuts of this magnitude would require the Russians to rethink their own policy in order to match them. But with Obama proposing to make the cuts unilaterally, Russia has no incentive to pay the cost of participating. The only bargaining chip left for leveraging Russian concessions is our missile-defense program.
George W. Bush achieved major reductions in our nuclear arsenal; it’s clearly possible to do so while also retaining a viable negotiating position with Moscow. Obama’s approach to nuclear disarmament, on the other hand, is a particularly dangerous form of unilateralism. His concrete achievements so far are conceding Russia’s objections to the silo-based missile defense in Europe and letting the original START Treaty lapse in December 2009, which leaves the U.S. and Russia with no on-site verification measures to monitor subsequent developments in our nuclear programs. The tether of START’s verification and mutual-reduction principles has been cut. In one year, Obama has relinquished the bases for nuclear stability and American security that his predecessors fought for more than 40 years to establish. What we and Obama are counting on now is hope.