Over at Russian strategic nuclear forces, Pavel Podvig argues that “Russia’s position on the link between missile defense is getting harder with each new statement on the U.S.-Russia arms control talks.”
On Saturday President Medvedev declared that Russia is “ready to cut our strategic delivery vehicles by several times compared with the Start I treaty,” but warned that “the reductions that we are suggesting are possible only if the United States addresses Russian concerns (i.e. missile defense). In any event, the issue of the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive weapons should be clearly laid out in the treaty.”
Compare Saturday’s statement with the joint statement Medvedev and President Obama released in London on April 1:
While acknowledging that differences remain over the purposes of deployment of missile defense assets in Europe, we discussed new possibilities for mutual international cooperation in the field of missile defense, taking into account joint assessments of missile challenges and threats, aimed at enhancing the security of our countries, and that of our allies and partners.
The relationship between offensive and defensive arms will be discussed by the two governments.
Recognizing that this is pure speculation on my part, since I’m not part of the U.S. negotiating team (duh!), I think the evolution in Russia’s public position on missile defense reflects a change in emphasis and tone rather than actual substance. Ultimately, I’d be really surprised if U.S. and Russian disagreement on missile defense blows up negotiations on the START follow-on agreement.
Here’s why. First the START follow-on is not likely to reduce the number of U.S. and Russian strategic deployed warheads dramatically below 1,700 (the lower bound of the Moscow Treaty).
Second, I think the Russian’s really want some kind of agreement, however modest, to replace START when it expires on December 5, principally to maintain strategic parity with the U.S.
Third, the Obama administration has made it clear that it will deploy the missile defense system intended for Poland and the Czech Republic only if the threat from Iran persists, the system is proven to work, and the system is cost-effective. At the moment, the proposed two stage interceptor for the European site has not even been built, much less tested. Consequently, it will be years before the system is ready to be deployed, which gives the U.S. and Russia ample time to explore cooperative measures on missile defense.
Obviously Russia is concerned about U.S. missile defense plans, and hopes that the START follow-on negotiations will address the offense/defense relationship in some form. It’s also clear that the Obama administration is not yet ready to altogether abandon the proposed European deployment, and would prefer to keep missile defense on a separate track from reductions in strategic offensive arms.
Yet for the reasons listed above, the missile defense issue is likely to get kicked down the road to a future round of negotiations. As Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak put it in early April “whether…absence of agreement…on BMD, whether it’s a showstopper for the follow-on to START, I would say no.”
Of course, the wild card in all this is the U.S. Senate. With each Russian statement linking missile defense and the START follow-on process, Republican Senators are apt to become more and more jittery about nuclear reductions. While these divisions are unlikely to derail ratification of a START follow-on treaty, more than 67 votes will be necessary to build momentum for more controversial treaties to follow (e.g., the CTBT) that also will need 67 Senate votes. If the START follow-on treaty can only muster 67 votes, we can probably forget about the CTBT.