On Saturday the Washington Post published a poorly reasoned editorial arguing that the Obama administration is misguided in pursuing further mutual nuclear weapons reductions with Russia because Vladimir Putin is, well, not a nice guy.
At least the editorial didn’t echo recent Republican objections to further nuclear reductions on the grounds that North Korea recently conducted its third nuclear test. As Steve Pifer and Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution write, “If the president tomorrow chose to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by 50 percent, it would still be 200-300 times larger than North Korea’s.”
But we should and are going to hold the Post editorial board to a higher standard than the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee.
The Post provides numerous examples of the “ugly climate” in Russia, including the Putin-led government’s decisions to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development, place new restrictions on local nonprofit organizations receiving foreign funds, bump U.S.-funded Radio Liberty from domestic airwaves, and suppress pro-democracy demonstrations.
This behavior has indeed been reprehensible. But it should be clear even to Washington Post editorial writers that today’s Russian behavior isn’t more egregious than Soviet actions during the Cold War, when Presidents such as Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan reached out to Moscow on nuclear arms control despite strong disagreements on just about every other issue.
In his State of the Union address, the President affirmed that the United States “will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals.” This makes national security and fiscal sense for numerous reasons, not least of which is that key elements of US nuclear strategy remain based on Cold War-era conditions that no longer exist.
But the Post argues that further cuts “are hardly urgent: The big challenges of nuclear weapons lie elsewhere in the world. At the same time, the survival of a pro-democracy movement in Russia is an important and pressing U.S. interest.”
By “big challenges” the Post presumably means the threats posed by North Korea and Iran. However, contra the Post’s suggestion, further US-Russian nuclear reductions are not irrelevant to addressing these threats. Compelling evidence exists that steps by nuclear weapons states to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons could help to strengthen the nonproliferation rules of the road and the credibility of US-led efforts to further isolate and put pressure on the ruling regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the “reset” of US-Russian relations during President Obama’s first term, which included the negotiation of the New START treaty, resulted in increased cooperation from Moscow in addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The survival of a pro-democracy movement in Russia is also an important objective, but the Post fails to make a convincing argument for why both objectives can’t be pursued simultaneously. The pursuit of another round of arms control will not be without significant challenges. But the United States and Russia have a shared interest in continuing to reduce the size of their bloated and costly stockpiles and Putin’s crackdown is no reason not to seek further cuts.