Obama and Medvedev Press the “Reset” Button on Arms Control

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 63

American President Barack Obama (left) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

On April 1 the first face-to-face meeting of presidents Barrack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev took place before the G20 summit in London. In an official joint statement after their meeting Obama and Medvedev announced their intention to "move beyond Cold War mentalities" and work together on arms control, missile defense, proliferation, fighting international terrorism, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russia’s WTO membership amongst other issues (www.kremlin.ru, April 1).

The words seemed constructive, the smiles were broad, and the atmosphere of the mini-summit was encouraging. Almost one year ago during their last summit as heads of state at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on April 6, 2008 Vladimir Putin and George Bush endorsed a U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration that outlined future cooperation on similar issues. While it was sparse on details, the declaration was equally high in rhetoric: "We reject the zero-sum thinking of the Cold War" (EDM, April 10, 2008).

These recent U.S.-Russian summits produced almost identical final documents and were apparently encouraging, though, of course, differences on Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) were acknowledged. The main problem with the 2008 summit was that while the presidents were enjoying the meeting, the Russian General Staff was in the final stages of planning a massive invasion of Georgia in August. In London the "distraction" of Georgia has been seemingly put aside, as the relations have been reset -returning to square one. But if they utterly failed from the same starting-point once, they might easily repeat this pattern.

One year ago, Putin and Bush also put the situation in Georgia aside. Today the same tactics may lead to similar results. Smiles, jokes and handshakes are not the best way to effectively defuse a very unstable situation in the South Caucasus that might easily test the fragility of the new relationship between Moscow and Washington. Obama agreed to meet Medvedev in Moscow in July "when the weather is warm" (Itar-Tass, April 1). Events in Georgia, should conflict re-ignite there, could derail these plans.

The Obama administration has seemingly chosen a renewed arms control effort as the main mechanism to help regenerate its relations with Moscow. The Democrats want to show that they can succeed, where the previous administration failed. Strategic nuclear arms talks seem increasingly irrelevant per se, as the Pentagon develops more deadly and accurate conventional weapons. Cutting the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons sounds good, and could help save money or facilitate a new detente with Moscow. Russian cooperation is indeed crucial in a number of important areas: proliferation, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and making the coming surge in Afghanistan work. Moscow also wants to work seriously on nuclear arms control -the only field where Russia is still considered to have strategic parity with the U.S., almost an equal, which is important for the Kremlin in order to revive its former power. It is of paramount importance for Russia to try to maintain this parity, not allowing the U.S. to pull far ahead and establish total military superiority. Russia’s main objective is not imposing new controls on U.S. offensive nuclear weapons, but it aims to reverse U.S. BMD development that might in future nullify its strategic nuclear deterrence.

Last April in Sochi, Putin expressed a strong desire for a possible future global BMD system to have "equal joint controls" (EDM, April 10, 2008). Now Medvedev has stressed the same point: "We should develop an overall BMD system together with Russia to defend our people against rogue states, instead of deploying fragments -missiles and radars near our borders" (www.kremlin.ru, March 29). A joint BMD, in which Moscow would have the power of veto over any action, as in the UN Security Council, would be ineffective as a deterrent against rogue states -the response time in an event of a missile attack is only seconds, and negotiating a Moscow-Washington consensus is impractical in such circumstances. However, the viability of the U.S. BMD remains unproven, and may be delayed due to costs.

The two sides will face arms control talks with widely differing objectives, which do not suggest a rapid positive outcome. The technical problems in agreeing upon a comprehensive arms control treaty, with adequate verification protocols to replace the START treaty, are immense. The main reason that drove Moscow and Washington to overcome distrust and the technical difficulties to implement START and other arms control agreements that ended the Cold War -the mutual desire to control and stop the economically devastating arms race- now appears to be absent. Russia no longer has any capacity to enter a new arms race with the U.S. Moreover, if the Obama administration makes deep unilateral concessions and takes into account all the Russian demands on arms control and BMD, such a treaty could face difficulties in achieving the required two-thirds majority in the Senate.

The issue of arms control is almost moribund, at least on this level. Washington seems to have chosen a potentially self-defeating "Cold War style" policy in order to reset its relations with Moscow. A high-level international diplomatic effort to prevent a possible renewal of conflict in Georgia in the coming months might be more appropriate -addressing a present real threat.