Despite repeated assertions from both U.S. and Russian officials since December that the New START agreement is on the verge of completion, we’re still waiting for the new treaty. U.S. and Russian negotiators returned home last weekend, and are expected back in Geneva to resume negotiations on either March 8 or March 15.
So what’s the hold up? I’ve run across a few reasons:
• It takes time to turn agreements reached in principle into treaty text. It also takes time to hash out the various annexes, the Memorandum of Understanding, and other associated and supplemental documents that will come with the treaty.
• Russia is not in a hurry to sign a new agreement. According to a former senior U.S. official who spoke to Laura Rozen, the Russians “are haggling, fighting internally, and trying to figure out how to get more water out of a stone.” They’re also worried that the U.S. Senate could fail to ratify the agreement.
• Verification. A senior U.S. official stated in an interview with CNN that “some niggling technical details,” perhaps regarding how to verify actual warhead loadings, are still being worked out.
• Missile defense. According to a number of different reports, including this one by McClatchy’s Johnathan Landay, missile defense has emerged as an issue. If Russia is in fact in no hurry to sign an agreement, missile defense could be their chosen means of obstruction.
I want to focus on the missile defense angle for the time being, specifically the Landay piece. Not only does the article contain a few mix-ups, but I think the impasse is being blown out of proportion, especially since a way forward seems readily apparent. (Note: this post turned into something much longer than I had hoped so if you have better things to do, I’d suggest doing them; if only I could spin succinct beats like Travis)…
For starters, Landay gets some pretty basic facts wrong. For example, the article completely mischaracterizes the Bush administration’s European missile defense plan. Landay states that the configuration would have put “a tracking radar in Poland and 20 interceptors in the Czech Republic.” In fact, the plan would have placed the radar in the Czech Republic and 10 – not 20 – interceptors in Poland.
More seriously, Landay conflates unilateral statements with a “supreme interests” withdrawal clause. In a meeting on June 13, 1991, U.S. Ambassador Linton Brooks and Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Obukhov exchanged unilateral statements on the relationship between the START I treaty, which was signed a month later on July 31, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (more on these below). The statements clarified how the two sides viewed and interpreted the treaty.
According to Landay, the Bush administration invoked a similar unilateral statement to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002. Not exactly. The Bush administration invoked the ABM Treaty’s supreme interests withdrawal clause, which allows the parties to the treaty to withdraw if “extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.” Most international treaties contain such a provision, and New START will most assuredly contain one as well.
These errors aside, Landay highlights two points of contention on missile defense.
First, Russia is irked about U.S. plans to place land-based SM-3 interceptors in Romania.
Russian officials have expressed surprise about the move, which was announced in early February. Apparently the Romanians revealed the agreement before the U.S. had time to privately notify the Russians about it. However, Russian complaints ring somewhat hollow in light of the fact that the Obama administration announced in September 2009 that Phase II of its new configuration for missile defense in Europe would entail placing land-based SM-3s in northern and southern Europe.
While the Romania deal may be making the negotiations more difficult, it’s not going to be a deal breaker. Despite Russia’s initial positive reaction to the Obama administration’s new approach to missile defense in Europe, it remains deeply concerned about long-term U.S. missile defense plans on the continent. For its part, the U.S. has repeatedly made it clear that the new treaty must not limit U.S. missile defenses. The Russians know this. Indeed, presidents Obama and Medvedev have stated that New START will deal only with strategic offensive arms.
The second contentious issue relates to Russia’s insistence that it be able to withdraw from the new treaty if it deems that U.S. missile defense programs upset strategic stability. The Russians do not appear to be asserting that such a formulation be included in the text of the treaty, but rather in a unilateral statement to be issued alongside the agreement.
As noted above, the Soviet’s attached a similar unilateral statement to START I. The U.S. responded with its own unilateral statement, proclaiming that the substance of the statement was “without legal or military foundation.” So why the freak-out now?
One explanation is that the Russians are insisting that the U.S. endorse their unilateral view that changes in missile defense levels would constitute grounds for withdrawal. Again, Moscow undoubtedly understands that this is an absolute non-starter for the U.S. While Moscow might be driving a hard bargain for the time being as a bargaining tactic (either because this is a deliberate strategy of delay or they simply can’t get their act together), I can’t see how they won’t eventually move off of this position.
Meanwhile, according to Landay, the U.S. appears to be trying to encourage the Russians not to issue any unilateral statement period. I find this hard to believe, but as has been the case with telemetry, the U.S. may feel constrained by the need to accommodate domestic political concerns. On February 17, Senators Jon Kyl, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman sent a letter to National Security Advisor James Jones, claiming that
it would be very troubling…if the [new] treaty included a provision that would allow Russia to withdraw from the treaty if it felt threatened by U.S. missile defense capabilities….Even as a unilateral declaration, a provision like this would put pressure on the United States to limit its systems or their deployment because of Russian threats of withdrawal from the treaty.
This is a really stunning argument. As Max Bergmann points out, “if the Russians feel that strongly about the threat of US missile defense they could still withdraw from the next START treaty [via the treaty’s supreme interests provision] whether that language is in the [sic] [Russian unilateral statement] or not. In other words, the additional language changes nothing.”
The reality is that the U.S. can’t stop the Russians from issuing a unilateral statement on missile defense. But neither can the Russians stop the U.S. from issuing a unilateral statement noting that Moscow’s view has no foundation, just as it did in response to the Soviet unilateral statement before START I was signed. Senators Lieberman and McCain had no problem with this arrangement in October 1992, when they joined 91 other Senators in voting to ratify START I.
Most people I’ve talked to seem to think that when it’s all said and done, New START will note an interrelationship between offensive and defensive forces somewhere in the preamble, but the text of the agreement will not contain any formal or legal limitations on missile defenses. The U.S. and Russia will then settle on an understanding regarding unilateral statements similar to what was worked out for START I.
Assuming these particulars, I’d be shocked if missile defense derails the treaty in the Senate. The Obama administration has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to pursue reductions in the U.S. arsenal without trading away missile defense, as should be evident by the fact that it did not rush to sign an agreement before the end of last year.
How much longer the administration will be able to walk this “mutual reductions without limits on missile defense” tightrope, however, remains to be seen. The Russian interest in concluding a follow-on agreement to START will likely outweigh their concerns about missile defense this time around – even if they do continue to hold out for a little while longer – but that’s not likely to be the case for the next round of much deeper arms reduction talks.