Hopeful signs for Russian-American arms control talks

A Russian-American strategic dialogue group is meeting in Moscow today. It will discuss a replacement for START I, along with the deployment of US missile defense system elements in Eastern Europe, and the Iranian nuclear program.

Moscow and Washington are going to prepare a document intended to replace the START I Treaty, which expires on December 5, 2009. This process will begin at today’s meeting of the Russian-American strategic dialogue group.

The group’s co-chairs – Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and John Rood, acting US under secretary of state for arms control – will discuss the deployment of US missile defense system elements in Eastern Europe, the Iranian nuclear program, and the question of not using outer space for military purposes. Given the accumulated differences between Moscow an Washington on all these issues, no breakthrough solutions should be expected from today’s consultations.

Yet the current Ryabkov-Rood meeting may be regarded as pivotal, if only because it is expected to mark an end to many years of arguments over the START I Treaty’s future: that is, the question of whether it should be replaced by a new treaty intended to make it possible for the two sides to monitor each other’s strategic military arsenals. START I, signed by presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush 17 years ago, came into force in 1994; it will expire on December 5, 2009. As Ryabkov said yesterday, Russian-American consultations held in Geneva last month produced a decision against extending START I.

According to Ryabkov, the representatives of Moscow and Washington decided in Geneva to develop a new agreement, intended “to become the successor to START I in terms of policy and meaning.”

Ryabkov told us: “John Rood and I will discuss this issue. We have reached an understanding with the current US Administration that we need a new treaty to replace the current one. And there is every chance that we can come up with a new document by December 2009.” According to Ryabkov, “given political will, a document’s text can be prepared relatively quickly. A year is more than enough time for that.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry admits that the negotiation process toward a new version of START I could stimulate rapprochement between Moscow and Washington; and signing that treaty would be the first successful joint project between the new US president, Barack Obama, and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

Ryabkov says: “This would make it possible to form a positive agenda in bilateral relations – especially since a mood to get things done is already there. I think our efforts will become more active as soon as the American administration is replaced.”

Our sources in the presidential administration are equally optimistic. However, they also emphasize that no substantial progress is expected until the inauguration on January 20. A Kremlin administration source says: “Signals from Obama’s team indicate that they are in favor of cooperation. Some new agreements on offensive arms control could serve as an example for presidents Obama and Medvedev to demonstrate improvements in Russian-American relations, setting an example for other nuclear-armed states – and the number of such states has increased since START I was signed. Obviously, Russia and the USA have the largest nuclear arsenals – but it remains unclear what should be done about other nations that possess nuclear weapons.”

But before they can demonstrate successful cooperation on disarmament and nuclear arms control to the rest of the world, Moscow and Washington will have to spend the next year overcoming some serious differences. In late October, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed support for the idea of a new arms control treaty with Russia, including further reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both sides. A week later, Rood announced that the Americans had sent Moscow some sort of draft for legally binding agreements on strategic offensive weapons. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that such a document had been received, but noted that Moscow wasn’t satisfied with the proposals.

A source participating in Russian-American arms talks told us: “The strategic offensive weapons proposals from the Americans use treaty-type wording. They may be described as a skeleton of a treaty. But the Americans are only setting out their own position. Verification and control of US nuclear arsenals are treated superficially in the proposals: whole categories of issues are bracketed out. For example, the question of stockpiling undeployed armaments and non-nuclear-equipped delivery vehicles.” According to our source, the USA is only prepared to negotiate “on warheads already deployed, while refusing to discussed retaliatory arsenals that could be rapidly re-equipped as strategic nuclear forces.”

Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, former Strategic Missile Forces chief of staff, says that Russia certainly isn’t satisfied with such a position. Yesin told us: “The discord centers on the fact that the Americans don’t want to impose any limitations on delivery vehicle numbers. But we must have that, since after December 2009 the American strategic offensive forces will be boosted by around 3,000 nuclear warheads which they have placed in storage since START I was signed. The same does not apply to us.” According to Yesin, this means that the USA would have sufficient arsenals for a disarming nuclear strike; and, given the missile defense system now under construction, the ability to safeguard itself against a retaliatory strike.

Not surprisingly, in the process of developing a new strategic offensive arms treaty, Moscow intends to tie this process to the deployment of US missile defense elements in Europe. Ryabkov says: “Reaching agreement on missile defense will be hardest of all. The US missile defense plans only serve to convince us that these issues must be considered in tandem.” Nevertheless, Moscow believes that the incoming US administration will be more inclined to compromise on missile defense; although the next secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will prove as difficult a partner as Condoleezza Rice.

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