New START treaty between Russia and US could lead to better relations

Senate ratification of the New START treaty on nuclear weapons could open the way to progress on several stalled strategic issues between the US and Russia, as well as between NATO and Russia.

Russia and the United States have a chance to cut their strategic nuclear arsenals by about 30 percent if the Senate ratifies the pending “New START” agreement. But there’s more to this pact than further arms reduction.

Senate ratification could also pave the way for progress on key stalled security issues between Washington and Moscow, as well as between NATO and Russia.

The agreement, a follow-up to the expired cold-war-era Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, has become unnecessarily controversial among Senate Republicans. Signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in April, the new arms deal may face its first political test this week if it is taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s expected to clear that hurdle, but ratification by two-thirds of senators will prove much more difficult.

As senators debate the particulars, they should keep in mind the potential benefit beyond the treaty’s reduction in nuclear weapons. Ratification doesn’t guarantee progress on other difficult security areas, but failure to ratify would likely set back these issues:

European missile defense. Russia is uneasy about US plans for an anti-Iranian missile shield to protect Europe (although it is less alarmed ever since the Obama administration modified it to deploy it first on ships in the Mediterranean and later on land). Russia (erroneously) sees a European shield as a potential security threat and an encroachment on its “sphere of influence.”

Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama team has also reached out to Russia and suggested that it take part in a shield. Germany, on good terms with Russia, is pushing the idea as well. Such a partnering would do much to build trust between Washington and Moscow, and it would send a powerful message to nuclear-bent Iran.

A tactical nuclear arms agreement. Several NATO countries are urging the US to get rid of all tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Deemed by the Germans as “leftovers” from the cold war, the estimated 200 US bombs at six NATO bases were designed to be delivered at short range.

But the US says any removal must be tied to an agreement with Russia, which has about twice as many tactical weapons as the total US supply. (America has an estimated 900 such weapons on its own soil; the Russians have at least 2,000 total, all in Russia.) A tactical arms agreement would be a logical follow-up to a ratified New START treaty.

A treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). In 2007, Russia suspended participation in this important treaty aimed at lessening military tension between Europe and Russia. The 1990 agreement put equal limits on equipment such as tanks and aircraft for the now-defunct Warsaw Pact and NATO. It allowed for verification and monitoring on each side.

Remember that it was Russian tanks that rolled into Georgia two summers ago. A set of complicated issues surrounds revival of the CFE treaty, but they have little hope of being ironed out if the New START treaty falls apart.

Hopefully, that won’t happen. The complaints about the New START agreement are overblown. Critics point to Russian provisions relating to missile defense. But the language is in a nonbinding preamble and unilateral statement. Seven former military commanders of America’s nuclear forces recently endorsed the treaty, saying it would not constrain planned missile defense.

Critics also worry that the cuts are too deep. But they are modest in relation to the past – about 30 percent reductions, down to 1,550 warheads each. That compares with 80 percent reductions over three previous nuclear arms treaties negotiated by three Republican presidents.

Other concerns include verification of Russian compliance and the need to modernize America’s remaining nuclear arsenal. Encouragingly, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has been working closely with the ranking Republican member, Sen. Richard Lugar, who supports the treaty, to address Republican fears.

As the US moves closer to elections, this treaty could get sidelined by partisan politics and a full legislative calendar. That must not be allowed. This issue is core to a “reset” in US-Russia relations and to Mr. Obama’s goals on nuclear nonproliferation. He must work hard for ratification, and senators must consider the ramifications of no treaty – what that will mean for unmonitored strategic weapons, and for a host of other strategic issues.

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