President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, have signed a treaty to succeed START I. For clarification, START II was never implemented, and its successor agreement, START III, never got to the negotiation phase. Following the signing, Obama attended a formal state dinner in Prague with 11 fellow NATO allies. Essentially, the context for the New Start Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations took place at a meeting in Moscow in July of 2009 between President Obama and President Medvedev. That meeting addressed several key issues.
Most importantly, President Obama and his counterpart signed an agreement that established the groundwork for the New START Treaty, replacing START I when it was set to expire on December 5th of last year. According to an analysis made at the time by Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association, “Just setting a new limit would send a signal to the international community in general that the United States was getting serious about its disarmament commitments again.” Originally the two world leaders met for the first time at the G-20 meeting in London in April of last year and agreed to start a formal process of drafting the New START Treaty. The meeting in Moscow was intended to smooth over any differences that each side had regarding complicated matters like missile defense and verification measures.
Many individuals familiar with the negotiations report that the Russians overextended their hand and assumed that President Obama would be more willing to compromise regarding the nuances of the treaty. Obama erred by assuming that he would be able to use his oratorical skills to simply persuade the Russians to agree to his terms. To overcome these deficits, Obama and Medvedev met or talked by phone a total of 14 times in an effort to reach some sort of agreement. In the end what carried the day and eventually breached the logjam was simple perseverance on the parts of President Obama and President Medvedev.
The New START Treaty was signed in Prague on April 8, 2010 in the gilded halls of the Prague presidential castle. One of the major impediments to any new arms control agreement is the existence of missile defense. Initially, the United States was pursuing a land-based system, but has instead opted for a sea-based system. While no one expects the Russians to withdraw from the treaty over objections to missile defense, the treaty allows the Russians to do just that.
Compared to the old system that relied exclusively on a land-based system of detectors and interceptors, the new system “will feature deployments of increasingly-capable sea- and land-based missile interceptors, primarily upgraded versions of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), and a range of sensors in Europe to defend against the growing ballistic missile threat from Iran.” Obama, attempting to reset relations with Russia that had become frayed during the latter years of the Bush administration, made a number of adjustments and calculations. Some were strategic and some were functional. One functional area was missile defense. After an assessment that a land-based missile defense system was not necessary, Obama chose to move forward to a sea-based system. The Russian Prime Minister called this decision “correct and brave.”
Obama has also relied extensively on his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in his efforts to “reset” relations with Russia. There was some worry that US-Russian relations were at a standstill with little hope for improvement. This was made all the more apparent after a meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. She had presented Lavrov with a little box with a red button on it that was supposed to say in Russian “reset,” but the Russian spelling was incorrect.
Because it appeared that relations between Russia and the U.S. would not significantly improve for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, the signing of a New START Treaty is all the more impressive. Besides the hesitation on the part of the Russians to refrain from agreeing to further sanctions against Iran, other issues pose significant hurdles in repairing US-Russian relations. The recent Ukrainian presidential elections and the ongoing trouble in two of Georgia’s breakaway territories pose significant stumbling blocks. The United States would prefer to have Georgia and the Ukraine free of Moscow’s influence; Russians would prefer otherwise. In the future, this could pose a vexing problem for the Obama administration.
The New START Treaty will require both sides’ deployed forces of strategic nuclear warheads be reduced to 1,550; deployed and non-deployed delivery systems will be limited to 800; and there will be a 700 deployed sub-limit of these systems. Further, “the warhead limit is 30% lower than the 2,200 limit of SORT, and the delivery vehicle limit is 50% lower than 1,600 allowed in START I. The treaty has a verification regime that combines elements of START I with new elements tailored to New START.”
The arms control mechanisms contained in START I were significant; but, due to its expiration, it was vitally important to negotiate a replacement treaty. Some of the facets of START I were a limit of 6,000 deployed warheads and a limit of 1,600 deployed delivery vehicles. In the meantime, SORT is effectively the only arms control agreement currently active. SORT (Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) only addressed deployed warheads, and the limit was set at 2,200.
Obama and Medvedev signed the New START Treaty in Prague, Czech Republic on April 8 and Obama declared after signing the treaty, “When the United States and Russia are not able to work together on big issues, it is not good for either of our nations, nor is it good for the world… Together we have stopped the drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation. Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation, and for U.S.-Russia relations.” Coincidentally, Obama declared in a speech a little over a year ago in Prague that, “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. No nuclear war was fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, but generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light. Cities like Prague that existed for centuries, that embodied the beauty and the talent of so much of humanity, would have ceased to exist.” Medvedev commented on the agreement, noting that it was “a truly historic event…What matters most is this is a win-win situation… No one stands to lose from this agreement. I believe this is a typical feature of our cooperation. Both parties have won.”
During the Cold War, any arms control agreements were hampered by the political nature of the Soviet Union. As civilian leadership within the Kremlin has asserted itself more forcibly, arms control agreements have become more common. Anton V. Khlopkov of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow suggests, “The military does not have the influence that it did during Soviet times…Back then, the military people, if they didn’t run, they were among those who led the arms control negotiations from the Soviet side. Now, they have less of a role.”
At the end of the day, what eventually made this agreement possible was the willingness on the part of Obama to stay engaged in the process. Despite the taxing health care negotiations on the domestic front, Obama did devote time and energy to finding a workable solution to arms control. According to an analysis by Sergei M. Rogov, of the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies in Moscow, “When President Obama’s domestic positions were weakened in recent months and he was completely consumed in his crusade for health care reform, making all other issues irrelevant, it is surprising how much attention he kept on Start [START]… Even being 24-hours-a-day busy on health reform, he had a 25th hour for Start.”
As the negotiations were ongoing, and although both governments had previously agreed to treaty stipulations, the Russians countered with further demands regarding missile defense. With the possibility that the treaty might not happen, Obama got on the phone and relayed his sentiments to President Medvedev. “Dmitri, we agreed…We can’t do this. If it means we’re going to walk away from this treaty and not get it done, so be it. But we’re not going to go down this path.” That direct engagement also showed the Russians that Obama was sincere in his efforts and a relationship has formed that will be useful down the road.
The New START Treaty is a vast improvement over SORT and vitally important because, aside from that treaty, there is no other agreement about limiting the number of warheads that Russia and the United States have. When two states have the ability to destroy the world several times over through nuclear Armageddon, it is crucial to limit the possibility that this could happen. President Obama is set to host an international conference of 43 nations this month that will address nuclear proliferation and security. Having this treaty signed will give the United States, and Russia, for that matter, added levels of credibility as they navigate very complicated waters. Secretary Clinton addressed this very same theme in her remarks following the agreement between Presidents Obama and Medvedev, “We come with more credibility, [and] Russia comes with more credibility having negotiated this treaty.”
What makes passage of the New START Treaty likely in the U.S. Senate is that the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee solidly endorsed the efforts by the White House. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) issued this statement; “I commend the U.S. and Russian delegations for months of dedicated effort. I look forward to the President’s submission of the new treaty, its protocols, annexes and all associated documents to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification. I also look forward to working with Chairman Kerry to begin scheduling hearings and briefings for the Foreign Relations Committee so that we can work quickly to achieve ratification of the new treaty.”