January 05, 2010

START As You Mean To Stop

December 30, 2009

By Tom Balmforth
Russia Profile

A New START Treaty Looks To Be On Course for January, But Further Nuclear Arms Cuts Are Unlikely

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on December 29 warned that Russia must develop offensive arms to balance against the United States’ missile defense system (MDS), and also blamed the former Cold War rival for delays in agreeing on a successor to the out-of-date Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Only six months into the “reset,” Putin’s defiant comments stand out from the current phase of warmer rhetoric between the two sides. And the Western press was quick to suggest that the statements could complicate a resolution on a new START. But are the comments really a substantive departure from Russia’s usual line on missile defense issues?

“Having established for themselves a shield against our offensive weapons systems, our partners will feel completely secure…Then our partners will be able to do anything they want. Aggression will immediately increase both politically and economically. The balance will be broken,” Putin said on Tuesday in Vladivostok during his tour around Russia’s Far East. “To preserve the balance we must develop offensive weapons systems, not MDSs as the United States is doing,” he said.

So how serious a problem is this for Russia? “It has to be said that the picture painted here by Putin does not relate too much to reality. The prime minister has shown that he subscribes to the theory of ‘expanded containment,’ the idea that nuclear parity between Moscow and Washington will help Moscow achieve objectives beyond the realm of security. But the only trouble is that there has not been this parity in a long time,” said Aleksandr Golts, a military analyst and the deputy editor of Russian news weekly, Yezhenedelny Zhurnal. The United States has around 1,100 strategic carriers versus Russia’s 600, so it is not a question of American MDS, said Golts. “Putin is not comfortable talking about the American advantage in carriers – it could occur to some observer to ask why during Putin’s ten years at the helm, during those years of good oil sales, they didn’t get round to manufacturing new missiles,” Golts said.

When journalists asked Putin on December 29 why a replacement to the 1991 START treaty had not been signed as planned by December 5, Putin said the problem was that “our American partners are building an anti-missile shield and we are not building one.” The Obama administration’s September decision to shelve plans for an MDS in the Czech Republic and Poland was praised by the Kremlin, but now Russian officials are saying they want to know more about plans for a sea-based replacement interceptor system. “They should provide us with all the information on their MDS, and then we will be ready to provide some information on our offensive weapons,” Putin said yesterday.

The US State Department reacted quickly to Putin’s provocative statements, issuing a statement later that day, in which it played down the impact of the MDS on a new START treaty. “While the United States has long agreed that there is a relationship between missile offense and defense, we believe the START follow-on agreement is not the appropriate vehicle for addressing it,” ran the statement.

The prime minister was technically operating beyond his remit by concerning himself with foreign policy, which is meant to be the exclusive preserve of Russia’s president. So was Putin giving his protégé a gentle nudge in the ribs to remind him who is really running the show? “I think, on the whole, Putin has shown respect for Medvedev’s authority and does not intervene much in foreign policy but sometimes he likes to remind everyone that he is still in charge, that he is the most influential boss in the country, and not the president,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs.

Putin’s comments have grabbed headlines both domestically and internationally, partly because of their defiant tone, which stands out from the more friendly rhetoric of the two sides since the “reset” in July. But in terms of substance, they are in fact entirely in line with Russia’s policy on strategic weapons. “Really, Putin did not say anything new,” Lukyanov said. Firstly, he went on, “Russia has for a long time linked offensive and defensive strategic elements, especially since the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001. In fact, the connection between missile defense and strategic arms was in general recognized by both the U.S. and Russian presidents in July.” Secondly, even if Moscow does start to develop new strategic weapons, Russia will still be able to honor the commitments of a new START. “You can cut overall potential but also develop the rest – it’s not necessarily going against the ongoing negotiations,” said Lukyanov.

A series of meetings this year between Obama and Medvedev, including one on the fringes of the Copenhagen summit at the beginning of December, have failed to produce a new treaty. Lukyanov said he thought that negotiators meeting in mid-January would finalize a new START. But he stressed that the modest cuts proposed by the new nuclear arms reduction treaty are mainly of symbolic importance and the signatures on the treaty are only really emblematic of cooperation between two former enemies. As for fulfilling Obama’s dream of a nuclear-free world, or even negotiating more significant cuts, Lukyanov said success was unlikely, as Putin’s comments yesterday made abundantly clear.

“I think the Obama administration would like to start discussing further cuts. But I think the next stage of negotiations will be completely different. For Russia to make cosmetic cuts to symbolize cooperation, that’s one thing, but to continue and go beyond those cosmetic cuts, it’s completely different because that might really change the strategic balance,” he said. “Beyond the modest cuts under discussion now, there is not much that can be expected from the Russian side,” Lukyanov concluded.

1 comment:

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