Maintaining focus in negotiations for a START successor

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent announcement that Russia will be upgrading its military forces in the face of Western encroachment (among other reasons) underscores the tenuousness of US-Russian relations. Despite enthusiasm shown by both sides for strengthening ties under President Obama, Washington and Moscow have very different, often conflicting, strategic interests. A comment Medvedev made justifying the upgrade reflects this situation. “An analysis of the military-political situation in the world shows that there are a range of regions where there remains serious potential for conflicts,” he explained. Eastern Europe is one of those regions. Therefore, it is imperative that negotiations for a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) remain, to the greatest extent possible, isolated from other aspects of US-Russian relations.

This can be accomplished by focusing on the details of the treaty. Generally speaking, the US and Russian positions have grown much closer under President Obama. Like the Kremlin, his administration wants to draft a comprehensive, legally binding treaty that commits both sides to further reductions. Obama’s nomination of Rose Gottemoeller as assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance is a promising development in achieving this goal. At her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gottemoeller described the expiration of START as a “new opportunity to achieve greater security for our country by reinforcing stability and predictability in the strategic nuclear relationship with Russia.” Such a perspective indicates a desire to negotiate a solid successor treaty as part of commitment to disarmament as a whole. The task now is to iron out the contours of a new treaty. Negotiators will have to decide on the exact number for reductions, the type of verification procedures, and what to do about delivery vehicles, deployed offensive weapons outside of national borders, and uploading capability. It must be noted that Washington and Moscow remain apart on many of these issues. But reaching an agreement or at least an acceptable compromise on such points is essential to draft a new treaty.

The good news is that Presidents Obama and Medvedev recognize this necessity. In their joint statement following their first meeting at the G20 Summit in London, they instructed negotiators to focus on these issues, and to have a treaty drafted by July. Such marching orders indicate that both sides are serious about working out the nuts and bolts by the December 5 deadline. The fact that the two presidents cited their “joint responsibility” to draft a treaty is also encouraging. It further underscores that fact that they view it as a matter of necessity. And while they may not agree on many of the details, their differences are not irreconcilable. There is ample room for compromise.

The bad news is that there is a danger of other aspects of their relationship affecting negotiations. The administration has been approaching the START successor as part of a larger project to improve bi-lateral relations. Following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Seregi Lavrov in Geneva in early March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described treaty negotiations as part of a “very broad agenda” to reestablish trust between Moscow and Washington. While she made clear that drafting a new treaty was the top priority, this agenda also includes issues that will most likely continue to be divisive. Going even farther in a recent interview, Sergei Koselov, the deputy head of the Russian foreign ministry’s security and disarmament department, explicitly linked the success of these negotiations with this broader agenda. “To have a new document on December 5… above all it is necessary to have a clear change in the climate of Russian-US relations,” he said.

While improving the relationship is a worthwhile endeavor, it is risky to lump treaty negotiations in with this effort. Here again, the Kremlin’s reasons for upgrading its military are revealing. The primary motives are western encroachment into Russia’s sphere of influence, and regional conflicts, in addition to international terrorism. What exactly constitutes western encroachment? NATO expansion, disputes over natural resources in Central Asia, and missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic. And what of regional conflicts? They’re a product of hostilities between Russia and its neighbors, many of whom are supported for economic, strategic, and moral reasons by the United States. In other words, the sources of these conflicts reflect important objectives held by Washington and Moscow. These objectives are practically inverse, and with the exception of missile defense, do not have strong prospects for compromise. At the very least they could impede efforts to improve bi-lateral relations. If the success of treaty negotiations is affected by problems in these areas, negotiations are likely to stall, leaving no new agreement in place by the December 5 deadline.

Fortunately, at least one member of the Obama administration grasps the importance of keeping the negotiations isolated. At her confirmation hearing, Gottemoeller acknowledged that US-Russian relations have become strained in recent years. But she pointed out that arms reduction agreements were first reached between the two during the height of the Cold War, when their relationship was much worse. She further explained that a new treaty can be reached by the deadline if negotiations remain “tight and focused” on the issues at hand. Gottemoeller’s advice should be the administration’s theme throughout the deliberations.

Now, there are issues that are sure to affect the outcome of a new treaty. Russian officials have made clear that Washington’s final decision on missile defense in Eastern Europe will be a factor. Similarly, the United States is unlikely to let the Iranian threat go unaddressed. Concerns regarding these situations will have to be accommodated, which will be difficult, although not impossible. That is precisely why other contentious issues should not be allowed to intervene. Missile defense and Iran, not to mention the details of the treaty itself, will be hard enough. Of course there is also the option to extend START by up to five years, but this would be a disappointment. It would provide for no further reductions, since both sides have long since reached the levels stipulated by this treaty. But if Russia and the United States are able to keep negotiations “tight and focused,” regardless of other problems that may arise in their bi-lateral relations, a comprehensive treaty can be implemented.

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