START treaty on nuclear weapons -- a first step to reset US-Russia relations

Not long ago, relations between the US and Russia were quite frosty. New Presidents Obama and Medvedev are set to sign the START pact limiting nuclear weapons. Will the treaty lead to closer cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan, and arms control?

Both Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, have something to gain from the nuclear weapons treaty they will sign on Thursday. But Mr. Obama gets something extra.

He can legitimately claim that an agreement on a new START pact that further limits long-range nuclear weapons marks a significant step in the “reset” of relations.

This is important to the US, because it needs Russia’s help on several critical security issues, including Obama’s distant goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. One can argue that Moscow’s willingness to renegotiate the START agreement, which expired in December, made it easier for the Obama administration to narrow its criteria for the use of nuclear weapons – an overall policy laid out today in the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

(For an in-depth Monitor report on the feasibility of total nuclear disarmament, click here.)

Washington also needs Russia’s cooperation on Iran. Obama can’t bring United Nations sanctions against a nuclear-determined Tehran without Moscow’s (or China’s) approval on the UN Security Council. Likewise, Russian assistance with supply and transit routes for US forces in Afghanistan strengthens America’s campaign against the Taliban.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have greatly improved since the end of the Bush administration, when ties were at their most frayed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 infuriated the West. The rollback of democracy under Vladimir Putin also put the two nations at odds. Meanwhile, Russia bristled at the rapid eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union into the former Soviet Empire, including a planned US missile-shield aimed at Iran to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic.

At the beginning of the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden emphasized that the US wanted to “press the reset button” with Russia. Over a rocky year, the two countries set up a bilateral commission to cooperate on economic, security, and cultural issues. It helps that Mr. Medvedev has a more liberal and democratic outlook on Russia than Mr. Putin, his predecessor, mentor, and now Russia’s powerful prime minister.

Obama seems to have developed a certain rapport with Medvedev, a fellow lawyer. The two talked or met 14 times to work through START. Indeed, the treaty, which reduces the number of nuclear warheads by about 30 percent to 1,500 each, is the first significant result from the “reset.”

The Kremlin is particularly pleased with the nuclear parity, which is more important to Russia because of its deteriorating conventional weapons. The agreement, meanwhile, bolsters Russia’s perception as a “great” nation. The US, for its part, was glad to see monitoring and verification of weapons renewed.

This treaty may not have come about without the Obama administration’s significant changes to the planned anti-Iranian missile shield, a policy of President George W. Bush. The Russians see the shield as a threat to them – an erroneous conclusion, but one that they constantly raised. Team Obama preserved the general idea of the shield, but adjusted the timetable, technology, and location.

That seemed to quiet the Russian rhetoric, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said today that his country reserves the right to withdraw from the new treaty if it decides the defense shield threatens its security. Indeed, the revamped shield nearly scuttled the negotiations. It wasn’t until Obama said he would walk away from a treaty that Russia finally said it would sign.

The treaty, which will be signed April 8 in the Czech capital of Prague, has its limits. It’s an important first step, but it doesn’t guarantee more steps. While Washington and Moscow may share interests, their interests are asymmetrical. Russia has more to gain from a strong nuclear arsenal than does Washington, and future nuclear arms control negotiations will be much more difficult.

Like the US, Russia doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran. But it also trades with Iran, and would see an eventual Washington-Tehran rapprochement as a threat to Moscow’s influence there. Similarly, the Kremlin, like the White House, struggles with jihadist terrorism, but it wouldn’t want to see the US become too influential in Afghanistan – the gateway to Central Asia, which is rich in fossil fuels.

Not long ago, a thick frost coated US and Russian ties. Thankfully, relations have warmed in the meantime. But the way ahead is unlikely to be very smooth, or running in a straight line. Expectations should be modest.

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