Commentary Magazine


New START and the Russians: That Didn’t Take Long

The New START treaty took effect last week, commemorated in a ceremony featuring Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The Russians, emerging from the near-silence they maintained during the ratification process, have promptly begun clarifying that, from their perspective, the treaty does not do what President Obama has been arguing it will. It is not a stepping-stone to a nuclear-free world, nor does it generate momentum for good-faith negotiations on the unresolved issue of short-range missiles. But it does give the Russians a pretext for demanding constraints on U.S. missile-defense programs.

On Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters the following at the Munich Security Conference:

This treaty does not envision any duties on Russia except the necessity of observing the limits it stipulates … Russia, like the United States, reserves the right to continue to develop its strategic forces in the future … the New START Treaty slaps no restrictions on the two sides’ strategic offensive arms levels.

Ivanov then helpfully enumerated Russia’s strategic-weapons development programs, concluding with his opinion that, as the report puts it, “the United States is all but sure to respond in kind and this is only natural … [considering] the importance of developing the strategic offensive arms.”

The Russians, it seems, see the New START treaty as consistent with the continuation of a robust strategic arms competition — and they expect us to do the same. They don’t see it, however, as a momentum-builder for negotiations on short-range missiles. Their foreign ministry said on Monday that it would be “premature” to set a date for such negotiations. The issue that must be resolved first is Russia’s concern about U.S. missile-defense programs.

Deploying the threat of the opt-out clause in the New START treaty, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov gave this statement to Russian news agencies on Monday:

If the U.S. increases the qualitative and quantitative potential of its missile defense … a question will arise whether Russia should further abide by the treaty or would have to take other measures to respond to the situation, including military-technical measures.

New START is the opposite of its eponymous promise: it goes beyond perpetuating current conditions to resurrecting the effectively one-sided elements of pre-START arms treaties. Having negotiated warhead limits that impose no meaningful constraints on its weapons programs, Russia will continue to field new strategic weapons and hold all further agreements hostage to U.S. concessions on missile defense.

This outcome was never inevitable. But some amount of the START legacy has now been squandered. If Obama wants to get from here to where he says he wants to go — a nuclear-free world — he will have to detour back through the route laid out by Reagan: incentivizing Russia, through a non-negotiable strengthening of America’s own defense posture, to make real concessions.

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