One, Two, Three, START

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Many expected it would be very close, but it wasn’t.  In the end, 13 Republicans joined 56 Democrats and two Independents to vote for the ratification of New START, a nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April.  The margin of victory, 71-26, was comfortably above the threshold of 67 votes needed to approve the treaty and to give President Obama a major foreign policy win.

The president couldn’t have a better Christmas present.  But similar to a child who eats his vegetables to please Santa Claus, the president, too, had to work hard to earn such a gift.  Over the past week, Obama has placed numerous phone calls to Republican Senators begging for their “Yea” votes.  On Sunday, he sent a letter to the Senate with a pledge to fully develop U.S. missile defense system (ABM) in Europe, something that a number of Republicans asked him to do as a condition of their support.  On Monday, the Senate received another letter, this time from Adm. Mike Mullen, the nation's top military officer, in which Mullen stressed that the treaty made perfect military sense.  Mullen’s letter seemed to carry a special weight for the Senate Republicans because of their traditional willingness to side with the military brass on issues of national security. 

The administration’s efforts evidently paid off: One after another, Senate Republicans began voicing their support for New START.  On Tuesday, the day before the final vote, it became clear that the treaty ratification has gained a momentum that couldn’t be stopped.  The Wednesday vote just confirmed that.

New START has become the first arms control treaty in U.S. history ratified during a lame duck session of the Senate.  It also turned out to be the first arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia whose ratification became the subject of such a sharp partisan divide.  Yet the relatively close vote on New START compared with the votes on earlier, similar treaties such as START I and START II, shouldn’t be taken as a sign of growing mistrust of Russia.  Quite to the contrary: no mainstream politician in the U.S. would consider Russia’s strategic nuclear forces an imminent threat to U.S. national security.  The consensus among the American political class, including many critics of New START, is that there is an increasing danger of nuclear attacks originating from so-called rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, and non-state actors, and that this danger can only be adequately addressed by the deployment of ABM.  From this point of view, the major “sin” of the new treaty, in the eyes of its critics, is that it is a distraction from ABM at best or an impediment to it at worst.

It is safe to say that in the foreseeable future, no follow-on strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia will be taken into consideration by the U.S. Congress unless such contentious issues as ABM systems in Europe and Russia’s advantage in tactical nuclear forces are resolved.

Completely overshadowed by the drama of the New START ratification process was the passage in the House of Representatives of the U.S.-Russian 123 Agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. Initially submitted to Congress by President George W. Bush in May 2008, the agreement was withdrawn in August 2008 in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war.  The Obama administration resubmitted the agreement this past May.  Such agreements don’t require formal approval of Congress and would enter into force by default after 90 days of continuous session of Congress unless Congress passes a resolution explicitly rejecting the agreement.  Two such resolutions have indeed been introduced, but failed to gain traction.  Many observers attributed the failure to block the agreement in the House to Russia’s decision to ban the sale of S-300 missile systems to Iran.

The significance of the 123 Agreement is difficult to overestimate. In the short run, it will allow Russia to become the largest supplier of uranium fuel for U.S. nuclear power stations.  In the long run, it will provide incentives for U.S. and Russian companies to share nuclear technology and materials, carry out joint research and development activities, and bid jointly on civil nuclear projects.  The agreement will serve as a powerful building block to the foundation of full-fledged economic cooperation between the two countries, something that U.S.-Russian relations are so sorely missing. 

With the 123 Agreement and New START in effect, 2010 becomes a good year for the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations.  Yet, both were “low hanging fruits,” and achieving further progress in the relationship won’t be easy.  It definitely won’t help that the Obama administration will face a more confrontational Congress, with some congressional Republicans hungry for revenge.  It won’t help, either, that the administration doesn’t seem to have a coherent Russia policy and formulating one will be difficult given the plethora of thorny domestic issues (and the looming re-election campaign).

Russia should adjust accordingly and show some patience and understanding.  Its focus in 2011 should be on Russia-NATO cooperation on ABM in Europe.  Any serious progress in this area will give a simultaneous boost to U.S.-Russia relations, too.  Perhaps, this is something President Obama may ask Santa Claus for Christmas next year.


About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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5 Responses to One, Two, Three, START

  1. Mark says:

    “The consensus among the American political class, including many critics of New START, is that there is an increasing danger of nuclear attacks originating from so-called rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, and non-state actors, and that this danger can only be adequately addressed by the deployment of ABM.”
    That being the case, the proposed sites for these systems are all wrong, unless the assumption is that the USA wishes to protect Russia and Ukraine from attack originating in Iran (as well as the countries proposed as hosts, of course – Poland and the Czech Republic).
    Although the missiles developed as interceptors are technological wonders, head and shoulders above their predecessors (the seabased system is, I believe, the Standard SM2 ER, Extended Range, probably the best anti-air missile in the world), all ABM systems share a common weakness – their probability of kill (PK) drops off sharply against a crossing target. The ideal intercept target is one which is approaching directly, and closing on a steady bearing. Probability of Intercept degrades proportionally – slowly at first – as you get away from that envelope, with the lowest PK having the interceptor closing at 90 degrees off base course of the target and beyond. The system located (proposed) in the Czech Republic would be just slightly off the ideal if the intention were to protect Germany (against a missile launch by Iran, which has nothing that can even come close to Germany, but let’s pretend); otherwise, if the intention is to protect the major European countries, I recommend siting the system in Slovenia for best overall coverage. Ideal coverage would be achieved by siting the system in the target country, although you might have a political problem siting an American ABM system in the UK. I seem to recall the Polaris missile sites were singularly unpopular.
    The system in Poland would be presented with a crossing target; therefore, either the country providing the system is prepared to accept a sharply degraded probability of making an intercept, or its purpose is otherwise than stated.
    Russia’s complaint with the proposed siting of the systems has consistently been that it appears designed to offer a “mopping up” option against the few remaining Russian missiles after the bulk of them are taken out in their silos by a preemptive first strike – the main deterrent value has always been the minority that can be moved around rather than in permanent installations. An ABM system sited as far north as the Poland installation would be well positioned for this. Although, again, it would be presented with a difficult profile if the target were the USA, I’m assuming the target would be Europe. The USA itself is already well protected against ballistic missiles. But a secondary concern is that a Poland installation’s radar would be able to see hundreds of miles into Russian airspace, 24 hours a day. Nobody in their right mind, given the generally anti-Russian rhetoric of the western press, would be comfortable with that.
    I’m glad START made it through, because it was far from a foregone conclusion at one point. Hopefully progress will follow, the ideal being every country forswearing nuclear weapons altogether. The USA already spends more on defense than all other countries combined, and its conventional superiority should be enough for security guarantees if nobody had nuclear weapons.

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks much for your expert comment. The fact that the main objective of ABM is to protect Europe is very consistent with the strategic role the U.S. has been playing for the past 65 years.
    The fact that the “rogue” country Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons is just a small and hardly important nuance in the country where foreign policy is often dictated by foreign policy objectives of another country in the Middle East region. The fact that ABM doesn’t work is hardly important, either, given the money ABM lobbyists are spreading around. That said, ABM is here to stay.
    This leaves Russia with two basic choices: either to set for potentially devastating — and perhaps, even unwinnable — arms race or to engage in some meaningful, however, difficult negotiations on its participation in the project. This, in turn, will require talking about its tactical nukes.
    Do you see any other options?

  3. Mark says:

    I can’t see Russia ever agreeing to eliminate its nuclear arsenal unless the USA does as well. Even then, the mutual mistrust runs so deep I doubt either side could be talked into complete nuclear disarmament. But it’s a great dream, because it would sharply reduce regional meddling outside one’s own sphere of influence – projecting conventional power, long-term, is just too costly. It’s the nuclear threat that permits such tinkering.
    If Russia were to achieve a stunning breakthrough this year or next (fast approaching!!!), they have enough money in the bank while the USA is stony broke to build up a significant advantage in a new arms race. But that couldn’t happen, because a new design takes years to put in the field, and the American economy will recover, given time and sensible management.
    Still, Russia has established solid precedent (the Skhval torpedo) for innovation when world design capability has hit a wall. The Skhval blows its own exhaust out through the nose, allowing it to run through a curtain of its own bubbles – effectively driving through air, whose drag is much less than water, while underwater. Skhval can achieve heretofore unheard-of speed for a torpedo, a breakthrough on the order of the microchip.
    In the end, the best hope lies in cooperation. But for that to work, the Western media will have to get over its knee-jerk reflexive bad-mouthing of Russia and some others. Since that won’t sell as many papers in a country where the citizens love to read about somebody getting their ass kicked, I’d have to say I’m not optimistic.
    Iran doesn’t have anything that can reach Europe, and it’d be a lot cheaper to stop them developing anything further-reaching than what they have than it would be to set up ABM bases all over the place. But then a great deal of perfectly good potential snooping capability woud be lost.

  4. Eugene says:

    I’ve heard about Shkval, but your description of how it works was the first I finally understood. Thanks.
    As for the rest, we’re largely in agreement. When our concervatives accuse Obama in being naive with regards to his vision of a nuclear-free world, it’s worth reminding them that Obama, in his words, didn’t expect to see such a world in his lifetime — and he’s a young and healthy man. From this point of view, I can’t imagine Russia giving away its nuclear arsenal any time soon. But in 20, 30, 40 years…who knows? 20 years (and one month) ago, I was still living in the Soviet Union and couldn’t even imagine that it would “collapse” and I myself would end up in the U.S.
    The problem with the tactical nuclear weapons, as I see it, is that the U.S. would demand “parity” with Russia, but Russia will argue, and rightfully so, that tactical weapons of the U.K. and France must be taken into account too. This will complicate things, and I therefore don’t expect anything “fast” here. Hence my point: nuclear reduction talks between the U.S. and Russia are stalled for the foreseable future, and the next “event” should take place in Europe, between Russia and NATO, on the subject of ABM in Europe.
    We’ll see and discuss. Fortunately, you and I have at least two places where we can chat:) and I look forward to it in 2011.
    Happy New Year to you and c Новым Годом to your wife!

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