Agreement hailed as step forward in relations, but missile defense remains a sticking point
The treaty reducing Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arms, signed in Prague Castle April 8, is hailed as a major sign of improved bilateral relations between the world’s two leading nuclear powers.
“When the United States and Russia are not able to work together on big issues, it’s not good for either of our nations, nor is it good for the world,” Obama said. “Together, we’ve stopped that drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation.”
But U.S. missile-defense plans in Europe remain a major sticking point in U.S.-Russian relations as well as within the treaty itself, and the agreement still faces what could be lengthy delays in ratification by both countries’ respective legislatures.
Missile defense remained high on the agenda for U.S. President Barack Obama’s two-day visit, as he will meet with wary Central and East European leaders just hours after signing the agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
In September 2009, Obama scrapped the Bush administration’s plan calling for interceptor missiles based in Poland and a radar base in Brdy, southwest of Prague. In the months since, a new plan has taken shape with pledges from both Romania and Bulgaria to host portions of a scaled-back missile-defense system, which the United States says is designed to protect against an attack from Iran or nonstate actors in the Middle East.
“The Russians still don’t like it and have said its future development could threaten this treaty,” says Nikola Hynek, a missile-defense expert with the Prague Institute for International Relations. “The parties disagree, but they are still willing to move forward on this treaty.”
The text of the Prague agreement alludes to missile defense by acknowledging a relationship between defensive and offensive weapons but employs ambiguous language to sidestep larger questions, leaving it open to disparate interpretations.
“I know a little bit about missile defense and was certainly there when most of this was discussed
and negotiated,” said U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher. “The presidents met in July, and they made it very clear that there is an interrelationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive weapons. But there is no limit or constraint on what the United States can do with its missile-defense systems.”
Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov interprets the same treaty somewhat differently and says the new agreement is based on the current status-quo balance between offensive and defensive weapons systems on each side.
“Changing these levels gives each party the right to decide the question of its future participation in the process of reducing strategic offensive arms,” he said at a March 26 press conference in Moscow.
By all accounts, Medvedev and Obama were nearing a treaty agreement toward the end of 2009, but the early months of 2010 saw Russian negotiators push for more compromises from the U.S. side with missile defense as a key stumbling block.
“No one stands to lose from this agreement,” Medvedev said at the treaty signing. “I believe that this is a typical feature of our cooperation. Both parties have won.”
The new 10-year treaty supersedes the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) of 1991, which expired in December 2009. The two leaders sealed the deal with a phone call March 26. Both countries will pledge to cut deployed strategic nuclear warheads below 1,550 – 30 percent below the current limit. They will also reduce intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers below 800 and reduce deployed ICBMs, submarine-based launchers and bombers equipped to carry such weapons below 700.
The actual numerical reductions in total nuclear arms is not so clear, as, for example, B-1 and B-2 bombers with the capability of carrying up to 20 nuclear warheads are counted as a single weapon under the treaty.
“This is the basic problem for negotiators who try to define what constitutes a nuclear capability,” says one arms industry insider who requested anonymity so as not to alienate potential clients. “All of this has been debated over and over as the Russians see it differently than the Americans.”
The treaty targets deployed warheads, not stockpiles, and is also focused on strategic, not tactical, nuclear weapons – a distinction related to the size of a weapon, with strategic weapons possessing a larger payload.
The treaty will not come into force until it is ratified by both countries’ legislative branches. The 1993 START II treaty was not ratified by the U.S. Senate until 1996 and by Russia’s Federation Council until 2000. Russia withdrew from START II in 2002, one day after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Obama in particular is likely to face ratification delays in a sharply partisan political climate and requires two-thirds of senators to support the deal.
After the signing ceremony with Medvedev, Obama met with leaders from across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) in an attempt to quell fears that improved U.S.-Russian relations will be detrimental to regional security.
Twenty-three CEE political figures sent a letter to Obama in July 2009 urging the United States to redouble diplomatic efforts in the region. The letter expressed concern that changed missile-defense plans – which were not finalized at the time but had been long rumored – were tantamount to sacrificing the region in exchange for better ties with Russia.
“Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we see that CEE countries are no longer at the heart of U.S. foreign policy,” the letter, which was signed by Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, among others, read.
In the Czech Republic, fears that the region is no longer a strategic priority have been bolstered by
the ambassadorial vacancy at the U.S. Embassy for the past 15 months.
“I view this meeting as a cheap but highly visible diplomatic reassurance that the United States is still committed to the region,” Hynek said. “Missile defense was never a military issue in the region. It was a political issue.”
The Obama administration has made great efforts to show that the region remains a priority. Vice President Joe Biden visited Prague in November 2009, as did Tauscher.
In February, a defense policy expert with ties to Washington, D.C. told The Prague Post the Czech Republic was still a candidate to host a command center for European missile defense. The Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed strategic dialogue is ongoing but said specifics are on hold until after the May 28-29 parliamentary elections, which should produce a government to replace Prime Minister Jan Fischer’s caretaker Cabinet.
“Talks haven’t entered a formal stage, but there are people working on it on both sides,” Hynek said.
Once Prague was announced as the site of the Obama-Medvedev treaty signing, Czech political leaders reacted quickly to dispel any notion the country is neutral territory for the two nuclear superpowers.
“As a NATO ally, the Czech Republic is proud and honored to host an event of such a historical and symbolic significance,” reads a Foreign Affairs Ministry press release.
The same release quoted Obama’s Prague speech from April 5, 2009, reiterating close Czech-American ties.
“We are bound by shared values, shared history and the enduring promise of our alliance,” Obama said.
Both Obama and Medvedev held individual bilateral meetings with Fischer and President Václav Klaus. Medvedev, who met with Slovak leaders in Bratislava, before traveling to Prague, will arrive April 7 and depart April 8. Obama will arrive April 8 and depart April 9.
On April 6, the Obama administration released the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and announced a shift in U.S. nuclear policy, for the first time saying the United States would not use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In an interview with The New York Times, Obama said the policy made exceptions for “outliers like North Korea and Iran.”
That announcement and the agreement with Medvedev pave the way toward a nuclear nonproliferation conference in Washington, slated to draw 47 world leaders April 12-13.
What's in the treaty?
Deployed strategic nuclear warheads to be below 1,550
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers to be below 800
Deployed ICBMs, submarine-based launchers and bombers carrying nuclear weapons to be below 700
Evening Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrives and meets with President Václav Klaus
10 a.m. U.S. President Barack Obama arrives
Noon Obama and Medvedev sign the treaty
1 p.m. Klaus hosts lunch
3 p.m. Medvedev departs
7 p.m. Obama meets with regional political leaders
Morning Obama meets with Klaus and Prime Minister Jan Fischer
Noon Obama departs