U.S.-Russia Summit: Nukes and Interceptors

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and President Obama in Moscow on July 6, 2009 (AP photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari). Click twice to enlarge.

The three-day US-Russia 2009 Summit begins today. Several global issues will be discussed but the most important one between the two powers will be nukes and interceptors. The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that went into effect on December 5, 1994 expires on December 5 of this year so the summit hopes to secure a successor treaty. American and Russian officials held four rounds of closed-door negotiations for a new treaty between April 24 and June 24.

Observers of the summit should be aware of the precarious status of the US-Russia relationship and why it is the way it is. Current US-Russia tension centers primarily on three issues: NATO expansion eastward into the former Soviet sphere, or Central and Eastern Europe, the post-Cold War US military buildup, and the US desire to place an anti ballistic missile defense (ABM) system in Central Europe. These issues guide Russian foreign policy vis-à-vis any new strategic arms treaty with the US and the future tone of the US-Russia relationship.

US policy in Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union was to draw as many of the former Soviet states into NATO as possible. Russia in 1991 was devastated economically but it still retained its vast nuclear arsenal. While the likelihood of a war with Russia seemed remote in 1991, the US and Western Europe still believed that it was in their national interest to permanently prevent Russia from ever regaining its former satellite states. NATO was the vehicle to accomplish this. Former Soviet states, which today are NATO members, include the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Poland. Each of these new NATO members offers strategic airbases for NATO members, including U.S. fighter planes. Today, NATO airbases are scattered all over former Soviet territory –too close for Russia’s comfort.

To make matters worse from Russia’s perspective, the US also wants to install an ABM defense system in Poland in conjunction with a radar system to be installed in the Czech Republic. The U.S. and Poland finalized the ABM negotiations in August 2008 (a week after Russia invaded Georgia). The deal will put ten interceptors in Poland. The ABM system is scheduled to be operational by 2012. Although the presidents of the US, Poland, and the Czech Republic have agreed on an ABM treaty, the treaty awaits ratification in the respective congresses before it can go into effect. According to the US, the purpose of the ABM system is to prevent Iran and North Korea from hitting Europe with weapons of mass destruction. Russia believes otherwise. It insists the “missile shield” is to counter Russia’s strategic arsenal, i.e., its nuclear weapons. While the Russian government could not prevent NATO’s expansion in the states already noted, it has made clear that it will not tolerate an ABM defense system across its border and will destroy it if the US installs one.

How does the US desire to build an ABM system in Poland complicate this week’s summit? Russia is willing to reduce further the number of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems in a new arm’s treaty; however, the presence of a possible missile shield across its border prevents it from making substantial new cuts. Think of it as a game of “Peg Ball” in which two people are each given 100 tennis balls and the goal of the game is for each player to hit the other person as many times as possible with 100 throws. Such a game would be altered dramatically if one of the players introduced a shield into the game. Put simply, Russia wants to have enough nukes to maintain its current deterrent level so that in the event of a war with the US, Russia would be assured that even if some of their nuclear weapons were intercepted in flight, many would still reach their intended target.

The details of the US-Russian negotiations to date are unknown since keeping them a secret is in the interest of both countries. The fewer details released, the less opportunity political opponents have to sabotage the talks. Whatever happens over the next three days, there are already a number of warning signs that the talks will meet serious resistance from both sides. While the Obama administration appeared open to ditching the ABM treaty with Poland and the Czech Republic in February, it has suddenly changed course. Last week, one of President Obama’s advisors in the National Security Council, Michael McFaul, stated, “We’re not going to reassure or give or trade … anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense” (see story). In June, General Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian general staff, flatly stated, “We have left the missile forces practically unchanged. …As long as the situation in the world, including with the U.S. missile shield plans, remain unclear, we will not alter our nuclear arsenal” (see story).

One of President Obama and Vice President Biden’s pledges was to restore the battered US-Russia relationship that occurred during the Bush administration in part due to President Bush’s insistence on further NATO expansion and the ABM system deployment, as well as the Russian government’s increasing authoritarianism and its military invasion of Georgia. On March 6, Secretary Clinton literally pressed a red button for “reset” (together with Russia’s foreign minister) to symbolize the resetting of US-Russia relations. Last week in regards to the upcoming summit, President Obama said that it was important that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “understands that the old Cold War approaches to US-Russian relations is outdated, that it’s time to move forward in a different direction” (see story). This may be so but as long as the US stubbornly insists on NATO expansion and missile defense in Poland, then Prime Minister Putin likely senses the Cold War in President Obama too.