President Obama has presented the new arms control treaty he signed in Prague on April 8 as a "historic accomplishment" in both nuclear security and U.S. relations with Russia. But there are disturbing signs that the Obama Administration is overselling its progress with Russia, raising unrealistic hopes that Moscow would genuinely help in addressing the danger from Iran, the most likely nuclear threat to America and its allies.
The administration, eager to show foreign policy successes, argues that the new treaty with Russia, which calls on both sides to reduce their nuclear forces to 1500 warheads, reflects a significantly improved relationship that will help to deliver Moscow's support for strong sanctions against Tehran. But it is not clear that ties between the White House and the Kremlin have improved quite that much. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's performance in Argentina, right after the nuclear summit, demonstrates that ties between Washington and Moscow fall well short of partnership. "If somebody is bothered" in America by Moscow seeking a greater role in Latin America, he said, "we want to spit on that." His statement led the news on Russian state television. Later in his "Spit Speech," the Russian President made clear that his government does not favor "paralyzing, crippling sanctions" the only sanctions that could deter an Iranian regime determined to have a nuclear weapons capability.
Despite this, Administration officials describe the arms control talks as a victory for Mr. Obama and a model for winning Russian support for sanctions. As the New York Times reported, they claimed that "Russia backed down" after the President made clear to Mr. Medvedev that the U.S. would not budge on Russia's insistence to establish a link between offensive and defensive strategic systems. Off the record, Administration officials told reporters in Washington that the successor to the START treaty was so advantageous to the U.S. that the Russian media was hesitant to praise it.
The facts are quite different, however, and the Administration's handling of the agreement evokes strong echoes of history. Coverage of the deal in Russia's state-controlled media has been unenthusiastic not because it is favorable to Washington, but largely because Kremlin officials specifically advised journalists to keep their excitement under control. This is revealingly reminiscent of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's instructions to the media through the Communist Party Politburo to avoid complimentary reporting on the SALT II Treaty, fearing that it could undermine President Jimmy Carter's efforts to secure Senate ratification of the agreement.
I saw the real Russian attitude toward the treaty while participating in a Russian television program called "Think for Yourself." Broadcast after midnight, it is one of the few remaining shows during which participants can speak relatively freely on sensitive matters. There, prominent Russian specialists who had previously expressed concern about what the new treaty would look like were now endorsing it. According to Leonid Ivashov, a retired three-star general and well-known hard-liner, the treaty was a "real diplomatic success," because the Russian delegation "did not yield." Another well-known hardliner, Sergey Kurginyan, stated bluntly that "Russia could not have an easier partner on the topic of nuclear arms than Obama."
Russian experts and officials have this view because they believe that America made a tacit commitment not to develop an extended strategic missile defense. As a senior Russian official said to me, "I can't quote you unequivocal language from President Obama or Secretary Clinton in conversations with us that there would be no strategic missile defenses in Europe, but everything that was said to us amounts to this." In this official's account, the full spectrum of U.S. officials from the President to working-level negotiators clearly conveyed that the reason they rejected more explicit restrictions on missile defense was not because of U.S. plans, but because of fear that such a deal could not win Senate ratification. A senior U.S. official intimately familiar with the talks has confirmed that the Russians were advised not to press further on missile defenses because the Administration had no intention to proceed with anything that would truly concern Moscow. Yet putting specific constraints in the treaty could block the Senate ratification.
This background puts a different spin on the reference to the link between offensive and defensive weapons in the preamble of the new agreement and on the Russian government's unilateral statement on the treaty, which asserts that the agreement "can operate and be viable" only if America "refrains from developing its missile defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively." This language, coordinated in advance with the Obama Administration, means that Moscow might withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. deploys a meaningful strategic missile defense.
If the Administration actually wanted to build nuclear missile defenses, U.S. officials might be concerned about this prospect. Tellingly, however, the Administration has taken a rather benign view of the Russian statement, saying that since they have no plans for deploying strategic defenses in the foreseeable future, they had no reason to alarm the Russians with hypothetical situations.
Instead, the Administration publicly and privately conveyed to Moscow that if Washington decides to pursue strategic missile defense, the U.S. would work to develop it jointly with Russia.
The best case for ratifying the new treaty is that it doesn't really require either side to eliminate weapons it wants to keep. Whether the treaty will really help to get tough sanctions on Iran is another matter entirely, however. There is no mystery of what might make Moscow more cooperative on Iran. Far-reaching sanctions would cost Russia billions. To compensate Russia, Washington would need to facilitate greater economic cooperation, and as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stressed on several occasions, this would require canceling the Jackson-Vanik amendment and helping Russia gain membership in the WTO. However, these moves would face opposition in Congress. The Sdministration has indicated that this would be the right direction to take but has not yet made an effort to make that happen.
Although United Nations Security Council sanctions seem increasingly likely (even the Bush Administration succeeded three times at that), there is a difference between getting a deal and getting results. The new arms control treaty demonstrates that it is easier to produce nice-sounding diplomatic documents than to take major steps toward advancing American security. Iran will be the key test of U.S.-Russian relations and, unfortunately, watered-down sanctions from a divided Security Council are unlikely to move Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Simes is the President of The Nixon Center and Publisher of The National Interest