Little Hope in Moscow for a Breakthrough in Relations with U.S.

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 213

A Russian Topol-M missile

There seems to be a serious desire in Washington to try to improve faltering relations with Moscow, which were strained by the Russian invasion of Georgia in August. It is expected that the new U.S. administration will try to show its ability to parley and achieve results where the administration of George W. Bush failed. The Russo-U.S. nuclear arms control treaty START, which was negotiated before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will end in December 2009. Without START and its mutual verification and on-site inspection regimes, strategic nuclear arms control will end.

Rose Gottemoeller served in President Bill Clinton’s administration as director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia at the National Security Council and as deputy undersecretary of energy, responsible for nuclear nonproliferation programs. For the last few years, she has been the director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow but is now leaving for Washington in hope of receiving an important position, most likely connected with Russia and arms control/nuclear nonproliferation, in a new Democratic administration. Gottemoeller believes that as U.S. president Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev may form a good and friendly relationship as men of a new generation born in the 1960s. Russia and the U.S. have common interests in arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, and fighting terrorism. Gottemoeller believes that even before officially taking office, President-elect Obama must reach out to the Russian military and press the Pentagon to invite Russian naval commanders to stop over at Central Command in Florida to "discuss urgent issues that are engaging both navies, such as the piracy running rampant off Somalia." The Russians will be returning home after exercises off the coast of Venezuela in mid-November (Moscow Times, November 1).

Such an invitation might indeed be a smart PR move, but naval commanders do not decide Russian defense or foreign policy. At present, the Russian military does not have any representation and little influence in the country’s top leadership. There seems to be nothing wrong in making additional efforts to placate the top brass; but friendly gestures toward a military that recently invaded a small neighboring nation and still occupies part of its territory will surely frighten other Russian neighbors that believe they themselves may be threatened by Russian armed forces in the future.

The outgoing Bush administration is putting in a last-ditch attempt to reach an understanding on arms control with Russia. Moscow and Washington have agreed to resume talks in mid-November on renewing START in Geneva (Interfax, October 18). The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Beyrle, has expressed hope that Moscow and Washington would come to an agreement on replacing or amending START before January 2009, but he acknowledged that this would not be easy (Interfax, October 21). Later Beyrle complained that Cold War attitudes were hampering progress (Interfax, November 3).

The majority of the Russian public did not favor either Obama or his opponent John McCain in the U.S. presidential election (RIA-Novosti, November 1), but Russian diplomats and politicians traditionally believe that it is easier for Russia to deal with a Republican administration. In any event, Moscow will try to negotiate with the new U.S. government; there will be talks on different issues, but it will be hard to achieve progress anytime soon. The Foreign Ministry has ruled out any agreement on rewriting START with Bush’s outgoing administration and blamed the lack of progress in nuclear arms control on Washington (ITAR-TASS, October 31).

The Russian military is, in fact, waiting eagerly for START to expire in order to begin work on deploying a modified Topol-M (SS-27) land-based intercontinental ballistic missile with multiple reentry vehicles. The SS-27 is a modification of the SS-25 ICBM and under START terms cannot be equipped with multiple reentry vehicles. The Russian military is testing a land-based ICBM called the RS-24 that is reported to be an SS-27 with a modified third stage that will carry multiple nuclear warheads and will maneuver during reentry into the atmosphere to avoid future U.S. missile defenses (Nezavisimoye Voennoye Obozreniye, October 31).

Soviet-built SS-18s, SS-19s, and SS-25s are becoming old and being scrapped. The RS-24, and the single warhead SS-27 are planned to replace the aging ICBMs (RIA-Novosti, October 22). Without the RS-24 the number of land-based warheads deployed by the Strategic Rocket Force might be reduced to several hundred after 2015. The Russian military fears that if an improved U.S. missile defense system is deployed after 2015, Russia’s reduced strategic nuclear deterrent might be seriously diminished (Nezavisimoye Voennoye Obozreniye, October 31).

Simply extending the provisions of START seems to be unacceptable to Russia, and a serious renegotiation process is inevitable. Moscow will seek changes that will allow it to deploy new ICBMs, while severely restricting the number of deployable U.S. warheads to continue to keep the Cold War principle of Russo-U.S. equality and mutual assured destruction (MAD) in the event of war. Finding a compromise solution will take time, which is strictly limited. As early as next summer, resumed fighting in Georgia might freeze any attempts at detente (see EDM, October 30).