The power of a reset button

It is good to hear that the new administration in Washington is about to hit the "Reset" button in U.S.-Russian relations, and present Moscow with a sweeping offer of a new strategic arms control agreement that would shave off the two powers' nuclear arsenals to a symbolic force of 1,000 operationally deployed warheads. This is real arms control as we know it, and it is an initiative worth pursuing.

The George Bush administration came into office with an unsophisticated view of the strategic nuclear relationship Russia and the United States carried over from the glory days of the Cold War, when policymakers were counting minutes before they had to make a decision on a counterstrike involving tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.

The Bush team espoused the idea that all arms control was inherently bad, since it limited the flexibility of U.S. political and military planners, and that arms control became irrelevant after the end of the Cold War. Since Russia and the United States were no longer enemies, the predominant line of thinking at the time was that it did not really matter how many nuclear weapons were deployed, since no one was thinking of launching a preemptive disarming strike. Consequently, they saw no need in negotiating complex arms control agreements with intricate verification provisions designed to reaffirm Ronald Reagan' dictum - "doveryai no proveryai" (trust, but check) .

Thus the Moscow Treaty of 2002 came along - a short and largely toothless piece of paper that committed the two sides to reducing their nuclear arsenals from 2,200 to 1,700 by 2012, without specifying how to get there. It was, for all intents and purposes, a promissory note without collateral.

The Bush team also ignored the crucial link between strategic offensive arms (long range nuclear missiles) and missile defenses. If we are no longer enemies, said Bush, why worry about missile defenses designed to counter the threat from rogue states? Friends do not really need to be bound by the constraints of the ABM Treaty, a relic of the Cold War, said Bush, and unilaterally withdrew from this accord at the time when Moscow was all but prepared for a strategic alliance with Washington. Friends could not care less if other friends deploy missile defenses on their borders, to protect against the rogue states' ballistic missiles that do not really exist yet. Hence the U.S. plans for missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe (and a special thanks to "friends" in Poland and the Czech Republic who love Russia so much they would rather be nuked by it for hosting "friendly missile defense systems").

Barack Obama appears to be more sensitive to the complex realities of strategic stability and is likely to reconsider, or at least postpone indefinitely, the missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe-a move that would dramatically improve the climate for serious arms control business with Moscow.

Strategic arms control of the past was a serious business. The START I and START II Treaties (the latter never came into force) were complex and bulky legal documents, which included detailed verification and mutual inspection procedures. They also required ratification by the two nations' parliaments.

A burgeoning industry of analysts and negotiators has sprung up around the arms control process. These were the people, both on the military, diplomatic, and even the intelligence side, who were steeped in minute details of the life and death of a nuclear weapon or its delivery system. The intense interconnection between these specialists due to the robust verification and on-site inspection process worked to build trust, no matter how ironic it may sound. And it created the broadest political and security interconnection between Russia and the United States, as well as political and bureaucratic communities with a vested interest in having this broad arms control relationship prosper. In short, it was good for the mutual relationship.
The START I Treaty which entered into force in 1991 is due to expire in December of 2009, ten months from now. Upon it rests the entire verification and inspection system for strategic arms control. A new treaty has to supersede those arrangements. That is exactly what Obama is offering.

Obama has endorsed the plan for the deepest strategic nuclear reductions ever imagined that was first put forward by such luminaries of American foreign and security policy as Sam Nunn, George Schultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger, all seasoned and accomplished arms control negotiators in their time.

It is also something that he will get a receptive audience in Moscow for. Russia has long been pressing for a "real arms control treaty" with Washington, and now is the time to get one. The Kremlin is fond of falling into a state of irrational exuberance toward every new administration in Washington (it is a "clear break from the past" every eight years), and it is during this rapturous period for the Kremlin that major arms control agreements are more likely to be reached.
True, an arms control breakthrough in 2009 would seriously improve the climate in the United States-Russia relationship, and would help build some trust into it. It is worth pursuing on its own merits.

The problem with this, however, is that nuclear reductions and the arms control process are largely irrelevant to the real challenges for the relationship. These challenges are located in the former Soviet Union, as an area of increasing rivalry for influence and resources between Russia and the United States.

It is there that trust between our countries is sub-zero and it is there, as the war with Georgia last August demonstrated, that Russia and the United States are increasingly likely to get into a messy conflict, perhaps with direct military confrontation. And nowhere is it more likely than in Ukraine in 2009-2010, as this nation, capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons and long range missiles, is sliding into political and economic chaos.

It is highly unlikely that Russia and the United States will soon engage in a structured dialogue on arms control, or over the crisis in Ukraine or Georgia, or Central Asia, for that matter. Arms control is easy stuff these days, but the real dangers lie elsewhere and neither Moscow nor Washington are showing signs of appreciating the coming conflict in the former Soviet Union.

Good luck with the nuclear stuff!

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