Stakes Rise as U.S. and Russia Stall over Nukes

  • Share
  • Read Later
Grigory Dukor / Reuters

Hillary Clinton took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow during her visit to Russia

U.S. and Russian leaders say they're "optimistic" that they will soon reach a new treaty limiting both sides' arsenal of long-range nuclear weapons, although they've said that before and failed to deliver. But with a massive review conference due in May for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon (NPT) — an increasingly strained but still crucial linchpin in global security — getting Washington and Moscow on the same page about nuclear weapons is becoming increasingly urgent.

The two sides missed a deadline last December to conclude a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which lapsed on Dec. 5. Since that time, leaders on both sides have promised that an agreement was imminent. But just last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emerged empty-handed from a long afternoon of talks with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, again offering only that she was optimistic that a deal would soon be reached.

The importance of a new START agreement for efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation regime can't be understated. The core bargain of the NPT is that signatories pledge not to develop nuclear weapons, in exchange for a promise by existing nuclear-weapons states to move toward disarmament. And the U.S. and Russia would both like an invigorated NPT against the threat of proliferation in a growing number of states. But if Washington and Moscow fail to agree on a new treaty to curb their own nuclear-missile arsenals, their bargaining position will be undermined. At previous review conferences on the NPT, countries of the Non-Aligned Movement — developing countries that claimed independence from both the U.S. and the Soviet blocs during the Cold War — have resisted U.S. and Russian demands in an effort to force the owners of the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons to keep their part of the nonproliferation bargain. If a START follow-on is not concluded by May, says William Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. "Both Russia and the United States would get hammered, and not only by nonaligned countries."

A more pressing deadline is the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12, aimed at developing mechanisms to secure and eventually eliminate global stocks of fissile material required for building nuclear weapons. A failure to complete START may hinder that seemingly unrelated effort, too. During the 2005 review conference, when Norway proposed a global plan to eliminate Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) stocks, South Africa — a developing country that has a large stockpile of HEU left over from the weapons program maintained by the apartheid regime but dismantled in 1994 — pushed back against the U.S.–backed initiative, arguing that real nuclear terror comes not from HEU stocks but from the thousands of weapons in American and Russian arsenals. That argument only becomes more powerful if Russia and America fail to renew START by the summit.

Currently, it is not clear what is holding up START negotiations. The basics of an agreement have been locked down since a joint Obama-Medvedev meeting last July: the White House reported that the two sides were ready to commit to reduce their arsenals to somewhere between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads and between 500 and 1,100 delivery systems, i.e. missiles and long-range bombers. Currently, the treaty allows each side a maximum of 2,200 warheads and 1,600 launch vehicles.

Early on in the talks, Russia raised concerns about U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Europe, which could potentially give the U.S. an edge if it could neutralize parts of Moscow's arsenal. Many hoped that concern had been addressed by Obama's pledge last September to scrap a Bush-era plan to station interceptor missiles in Poland and by promises to include missile defense in negotiations of any further arms-control treaties. But Moscow remained concerned over the alternatives to the Polish scheme being considered by the U.S, for deployment in Europe. Last week the Speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, Boris Gryzlov, said that the Duma would not ratify a START treaty until all U.S. plans for a Europe-based missile-defense system were shelved.

"There are all sorts of rumors for why [a new treaty] hasn't been signed," says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. "At a deeper level the delay hints at lingering distrust between the United States and Russia."

Potter, however, believes that domestic tensions in Russia rather than a rift between the two countries is responsible for the delay. "The delay has had more to do with Russian domestic politics and involves disputes between Russian military and political figures about the role of nuclear weapons in Russian security policy and the importance of improved Russian relations with the United States," he explains. "Some Russian analysts also have suggested that President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have different interests in rapid conclusion (and ratification) of the treaty, which is related to their positioning for the next presidential contest."

A successor to START was supposed to have been the easy first step in the journey to reach President Obama's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is his ambition that has injected this year's nuclear-security summit and NPT review conference with such importance and potential. But the START struggles raise concern that Obama's vision could stumble at the first hurdle.