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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Obama and Medvedev Off to a Good Start

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This week in Moscow, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev made history agreeing to series of concrete steps that help “reset” U.S.-Russian relations after years of decline. Most important, the two presidents agreed to a framework for a new nuclear arms reduction treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will expire in less than five months.

Given the limited time frame for the talks, the reductions outlined in the Obama-Medvedev joint statement are — not surprisingly — limited in scale and scope. The agreement would establish lower limits on the number of strategic warheads that may be deployed, from more than 2,200 warheads today to 1,500 to 1,675. Even without a new treaty, Russia is on track to reduce deployed strategic warheads to 1,800 or less by the end of 2012.

It would also create lower ceilings for the number of strategic nuclear delivery systems to 500 to 1,100 each. Currently, the United States has about 1,200 and Russia has 800. The START follow-on agreement would also maintain the most essential of START’s verification, monitoring and information-exchange provisions, which are needed for continued predictability and transparency.

Modest as it may be, the START follow-on agreement would also help maintain rough parity in U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear forces in the years ahead and set the stage for deeper reductions in all types of nuclear forces. The two countries’ arsenals constitute 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and maintaining common-sense control of the largest and most lethal nuclear arsenals is also fundamental to closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of other issues.

Also, as Obama noted, “The United States and Russia must lead by example.” An agreement on a START follow-on by year’s end would demonstrate that the two countries are truly committed to fulfilling their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This will, in turn, bolster efforts to win international support for new measures to strengthen the beleaguered treaty at the Review Conference in May 2010.

While the two sides are still months away from settling on the final counting rules and verification procedures, Obama and Medvedev clearly understand the cost of inaction and are pressing their negotiators to find a way to succeed.

As exhausting as this negotiation may turn out to be, U.S. and Russian leaders cannot afford to stop with a START follow-on deal. It is clear that the current round of arms talks will not resolve the impasse over the potential expansion of the U.S. strategic ballistic missile defense system. Nor will it regulate the two countries’ large stockpiles of nondeployed strategic warheads and their obsolete tactical nuclear bombs.

The two sides should make good on their renewed commitment to engage in a serious dialogue on the right balance between strategic offensive and defensive armaments. At the same time, the missile defense issue should not and need not impede completion and ratification of the START follow-on agreement.

While Obama has delayed plans for missile defense in Europe and deferred spending on additional interceptors, he is unlikely to rule out missile defense deployment until the administration completes its review of U.S. missile defense policy later this year. Russian statements that suggest that U.S. cancellation of the European missile defense system is a prerequisite for any further cuts in offensive arms are premature and counterproductive.

The reality is that the U.S. interceptors for Europe have not been tested, would have a limited capability, and are years away from possible deployment. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said the current deployment of 30 interceptors in the United States is sufficient to counter a handful of long-range missiles that might be developed by North Korea or Iran in the next several years. At the same time, the U.S. capability is clearly no match for 800 sophisticated Russian strategic nuclear missiles and heavy bombers. In other words, there is time for Moscow and Washington to explore and develop truly cooperative approaches to jointly counter Iran’s potential missile threat and eventually agree to limits on strategic missile defense capabilities.

A common approach on strategic missile defense would open the way for more dramatic reductions in the offensive nuclear forces that will remain. Obama and Medvedev should direct their negotiating teams to prepare for a new round of talks on deeper and more comprehensive reductions beginning early 2010. The goal in this next round of offensive nuclear arms reductions talks should be to reduce their respective arsenals to 1,000 total nuclear warheads or fewer within the next few years.

Moreover, as the Obama administration has suggested, this next round of negotiations will cover all types of nuclear warheads — deployed and nondeployed, as well as both strategic and tactical. It will also mandate the verifiable dismantlement of excess warheads. Such an approach is in the interest of both sides.

Verifiable dismantlement of excess, nondeployed strategic warheads would further reduce the capabilities of both sides to reconstitute a larger arsenal. U.S. leaders will be more likely to agree to verifiable dismantlement of excess strategic nuclear warheads if Russia agrees to begin accounting for and dismantling its large tactical nuclear warhead stockpile, which is estimated to number more than 2,000 bombs ready for use, plus thousands more in various stages of readiness. The United States retains several hundred such bombs.

While some Russian military planners believe tactical nuclear bombs are needed as an insurance policy against U.S. and NATO conventional forces, these weapons have no practical military value. Not only is the chance of a direct conventional conflict between Russia and NATO remote, but the enormous damage caused by tactical nuclear weapons makes their use inappropriate as a response to conventional air strikes or ground invasion.

NATO must also do its part. It can and must reconsider whether it will continue to station some 200 U.S. tactical nuclear bombs in Western Europe as an anachronistic symbol of NATO unity, or withdraw these obsolete battlefield weapons.

Hanging on to these Cold War relics also perpetuates the dangerous risk that they may fall into the hands of terrorists. Better to retire these unnecessary weapons and have their dismantlement verified and their nuclear materials rendered unusable for military purposes.

Negotiations on deeper, verifiable nuclear reductions will take time. To push things along, U.S. and Russian leaders should also announce that they will no longer orient their nuclear forces to launch first strikes and declare that nuclear weapons shall only serve to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Obama and Medvedev are off to a good start, but there’s more to be done to reduce and eventually eliminate the nuclear weapons danger.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director and Tom Z. Collina is research director at the independent Arms Control Association in Washington.