A Symmetric Response

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

As it was always expected, the Russian parliament has ratified the New Start treaty, a U.S.-Russia strategic nuclear arms reduction pact signed by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in April 2010.

Still fresh in memory is the high drama that marked the New START ratification process in U.S. Senate, late last year: the Obama administration’s muscular efforts to break the Republican opposition to the treaty, an intense horse trading aimed at securing 67 votes needed to approve the treaty, and the final vote in the waning hours of the lame-duck Senate session, a vote whose outcome no one, including President Obama himself, could comfortably predict until the very end.

In contrast, as it progressed through the lower (the Duma) and the upper (the Federation Council) chambers of Russia’s legislative body, the ratification process lacked any elements of a show.  This is not to say, however, that there was no intrigue at all.  While the Federation Council has approved the treaty unanimously, the vote in the Duma was 350-96 (with one abstention).  Voting against the treaty were the Communists and the deputies from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party.  The dissenters raised essentially the same objection to New Start as their Republican colleagues in U.S. Senate: that the treaty makes too many concessions to the other side.

Yet much more important was an effort by the Russian lawmakers, spearheaded by the Duma international affairs committee chairman Konstantin Kosachev, to address the language in the U.S. Senate ratification resolution.  Enjoying the benefits of ratifying the treaty after their U.S. counterparts, Russian legislators decided to provide a “symmetric” response (a diplomatic equivalent of “We love you too” of sorts) to what they considered a troubled interpretation of the treaty.

When discussing New START, U.S. Senators sent a clear message to President Obama that in their understanding, the treaty was in no way to restrict U.S. plans to develop missile defense (ABM) systems.  In response, the Russian ratification resolution insisted that the treaty can only be fulfilled if the future U.S. ABM systems do not erode the Russian nuclear deterrent.  Moreover, the resolution has made it clear that future disagreements on the issue may result in Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty.

This strong language, although not completely unexpected, will certainly upset many in Washington.  Why such an emphasis on missile defense?  First, as any serious military expert would tell you, no functional U.S. ABM system capable of matching the capacities of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles will be available in the next 10-15 years.  This is quite some time away, especially given that initially, New START will only be in effect for 10 years.  Second, as the Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told to the Federation Council during the ratification hearings, Russia was working on developing an ABM system of its own.  Mr. Serdyukov gave no specifics, but in an earlier statement, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of Russia’s armed forces staff, promised that by 2020, Russia will have an ABM system impenetrable to any kind of missile attack.  Does it mean that Russia wants to restrict the U.S. missile defense without imposing any restrictions on its own ABM systems?

It thus appears almost certain that when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton meet to exchange ratification protocols, Clinton will ask Lavrov a number of clarifying questions.

In its ratification resolution, U.S. Senate has also instructed President Obama to initiate, within a year, U.S.-Russia talks on cutting arsenals of shorter-range (so-called tactical) nuclear weapons where Russia has a substantial numeric advantage.  The Russian parliament’s resolution did not address this topic directly, but Lavrov strongly indicated that Russia was in no rush to begin such negotiations.  Without saying “no” explicitly, Lavrov first suggested that any new steps in nuclear arms reduction were premature until the New Start has been fulfilled.  He further hardened Russia’s position by insisting that the issue of tactical nuclear weapons can only be discussed in coordination with other related arms control issues, such as the size of conventional arms forces in Europe, U.S. plans to develop strategic missile equipped with conventional explosives, and “weaponization” of space.  Besides, in Lavrov’s opinion, negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons must include other nuclear powers: the United Kingdom, France, and China.

Russia’s “symmetric” response to U.S. Senate ratification resolution must not, of course, be attributed to the pettiness of Russian officials.  The diverging interpretation of New START objectives reflects the profound differences in how the both sides define major challenges to their national interests.  Russia still considers possible nuclear strike by the U.S as the primary, if not the only, real military threat to its security.  Maintaining absolute parity with the U.S. in nuclear weapons therefore remains the cornerstone of the Russian military doctrine, and anything (such as ABM systems) that could weaken Russia’s potential devastating retaliatory strike is viewed in Moscow with concern, to say the very least.  From this point of view, the New START treaty is highly beneficial to Moscow as it allows Russia to lessen the burden of maintaining its strategic nuclear arsenal – especially given the difficulties Russia meets when trying to replace aging Soviet-built missiles with new generation systems. 

In contrast, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. does not consider Russia’s nuclear capacity as the major threat to its security.  The current thinking in Washington is that new threats that the U.S. is facing come from “rogues” actors, such as Iran and North Korea.  In the minds of Washington strategists, classical nuclear deterrent does not work against these threats, and they can only be efficiently countered by developing ABM systems and designing non-nuclear strategic capabilities.  From this perspective, the U.S. is less interested in the number of Russian warheads than in securing Russia’s cooperation in the areas the U.S. considers crucial to its national interests: cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear problem, and the situation on the Korean peninsula. 

In other words, if Russia is mostly interested in the military aspect of the New START treaty, the U.S. mainly stresses its political aspect.  This asymmetry in the approaches must be taken into account when predicting future developments in U.S.-Russia relations.

And remember, New START was supposed to be the easiest part of "reset", with really tough decisions still lying ahead.  Well, one can surely agree on the latter. 


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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4 Responses to A Symmetric Response

  1. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    Indeed, START looks like an easiest or at least the most straightforward part. Here is the example of “tough” decisions to make” http://tinyurl.com/4swl6rz
    (although, it was nice to see that US was able to choose the only correct approach in this case)

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks Igor,
    The link is hilarious. It’s only sad to learn that with all these numerous Russian spies in the UK — identified, suspected and sucked up from the finger — the Russians needed Americans to get this routine info.
    As for the Americans, remember Churchill: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities”?

  3. Igor says:

    ..Oh, the British Government ..They are, perhaps, preoccupied with accommodating the money stolen by various Russian oligarchs or, maybe, busy with the plans to install Luzhkov as a mayor of London? Otherwise they would have not failed to notice that ever since the total Russian privatization, the Russian SVR was privatized too, that their spy training had been outsourced to the Faculty of Массовиков-Затейников, that the spy’s placement in the residence country is now a paid customer service and is handled on a commercial basis by the Extreme Tourism Agency even without the above Diploma & is a joint venture with commercial sectors of FBI and MI6. That it is only when the clients complain that their adventure is too dull & boring for the money their relatives paid, the placement agency has to do something to raise the level of the customer satisfaction & it is then that the Government hear some new Russian spy story. Sometimes with the car chase – if the client could afford it. The Government might not even know that GRU is a private enterprise too ever since it was secretly sold to Chubais during Eltsin’s reforms and that there are negotiations underway to merge it with the Moscow Circus. No wonder they are so jumpy when they hear the word “Russian spy”.. Or , maybe, it is their own past and traditions http://tinyurl.com/4emftyj (the part about “Tricycle”) which make them feel insecure?

  4. Eugene says:

    Sounds very le Carresque to me:)

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