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Foreshadowing the Obama-Medvedev Summit

Richard Weitz

The main topic of the July 6-8 summit meeting in Moscow between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be settling the main elements of an agreement to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The current arms control pact expires in early December.

On June 23-24, Russian and American negotiating teams completed their last formal session before the summit. By mutual agreement, the two sides have avoided publicly commenting on the specific proposals under discussion. Even so, their general statements and various media leaks have shed light on areas of broad agreement, as well as on unresolved issues that might require presidential intervention in Moscow.

US officials have already made several major concessions since negotiations began in April. For example, American negotiators have announced they would not require reductions in the number of short-range nuclear weapons in the next treaty. Russia has many more of these tactical nuclear weapons than the United States, and sees them as potentially valuable tools for fighting regional wars in Eurasia. Furthermore, US officials have agreed to limit strategic delivery vehicles (long-range ballistic missiles and strategic bombers) as well as nuclear warheads. Russian analysts have worried about the US ability to simply return any warheads removed from these carriers during a crisis, so they have insisted on constraining both.

In return, Russian negotiators are apparently no longer trying to impose direct restrictions on the number of nuclear warheads both countries retain outside their operational forces. No previous arms control agreement has sought to limit warheads in storage or in “reserve” (e.g., as spares) since attempting to do so would require very intrusive on-site inspections to determine their number and condition.

Against the background of these mutual concessions, Medvedev and other Russian leaders have expressed a willingness to accept further modest reductions in both countries’ nuclear arsenals, but only if the United States addresses three major Russian concerns.

In fact, the Obama administration has shown flexibility in all three areas, suggesting that a deal might well be achievable this year unless disrupted by external events—such as another war in Georgia. Thus far, the two sides have indicated they will simply agree to disagree on Georgia, and on the other Eurasian security issues that divide them. But keeping major disputes from negatively affecting arms control negotiations is often difficult, as seen in the current stalemate over the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

In recent weeks, Russian officials have indicated their willingness to reduce nuclear forces below the limits established by two earlier Russian-American strategic arms control treaties. Specifically, they have said that Russia could reduce its operationally deployed nuclear warheads total below the 2,200 ceiling provided for in the 2002 Moscow Treaty. They have also confirmed that Russia would accept a much lower limit on the number of strategic delivery vehicles than the 1,600 figure established by START.

In return, they insist on resolving three issues separate from the weapons totals. First, they want to preserve START provisions prohibiting the stationing of strategic offensive weapons outside a country’s national territory. Since Russian negotiators have not indicated they seek to restrict the patrols of strategic nuclear submarines and strategic bombers, this limit would presumably exclude the basing of long-range ballistic missiles in foreign countries or in outer space. Given that the Obama administration has no plans for such deployments, meeting this requirement should not be difficult.

Second, Russian officials have demanded that the next address the so-called “prompt global strike” program developed by the George H. W. Bush administration. This Bush program would equip long-range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads in order to rapidly attack hard-to-reach targets, such as terrorists in Central Asia or Pakistan who have seized a nuclear weapon. Although Russian officials would like to prohibit this option because of the difficulties of determining whether an ICBM in flight has a conventional rather than a nuclear warhead, US negotiators have indicated they could accept the Russian fall-back position to count all warheads, whether nuclear or conventional, under a common ceiling in the next treaty.

Third, Russian leaders have demanded that the United States address Russia’s concerns that US ballistic missile defense programs (BMD) could threaten Russia’s nuclear forces. In recent statements, Medvedev did not explicitly demand that the United States cancel the BMD systems planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Instead, the Russian president simply insisted that Washington acknowledge in the next treaty the inter-relationship between strategic offense and strategic defense.

While still expressing alarm at the improving missile capabilities of Iran, the Obama administration has indicated that the favored response of the Bush administration—deploying 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and an advanced missile defense radar in the Czech Republic—represents only one option for dealing with that threat. In recent congressional testimony, several Defense Department officials have stressed that the administration was considering how cooperating with Russia might dissuade Iran from ever threatening Europe with nuclear-armed missiles.

US policymakers are reassessing offers made two years ago by then-president Vladimir Putin to share data with Washington from the Russian-operated early warning radars located at Gabala in Azerbaijan and Armavir in Russia’s North Caucasus. Azerbaijani officials seem open to such collaboration, but Russian officials have recently said they would collaborate with the United States on Eurasian missile defenses only if Washington abandons its BMD plans for Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Obama administration has a choice. One option for Washington would be to cancel or defer the Polish and Czech deployments and pursue a joint Eurasian missile defense program with Russia. Alternately, the United States could proceed with the deployments, but include in the treaty the language Medvedev recently proposed to acknowledge the difference between offensive and defensive nuclear weapons. US officials might then want to reassure Russia by adopting various confidence-building measures, such as limiting the number of missile interceptors in Poland and allowing Russians to monitor the Czech radar to see that it is focused southward rather than on Russia’s strategic systems.

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