Is US-Russia thaw threatened by new START delay?

A key senator said Tuesday that he does not want to ratify a new START, the US-Russia nuclear arms pact, this year. The Obama administration says a delay could harm fragile relations with Russia.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (c.) flanked by Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts (l.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana talks about the START treaty following their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday.

Trouble for a new nuclear weapons treaty could be bad news for President Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia.

Mr. Obama counts improved relations with Russia during his time in office – what is now called the “reset” – among the top foreign policy accomplishments of his presidency. And a crucial piece of that is the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) the president concluded with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April.

But only days after Obama declared Senate ratification of the new START his top foreign policy priority for the lame-duck session of Congress, a crucial senator is throwing a wrench into plans.

Sen. John Kyl (R) of Arizona on Tuesday said he opposes any rush to ratification and would favor letting the new Senate take up the treaty next year. Senator Kyl, who has already got commitments from Obama for modernization of the US nuclear arsenal and weapons labs, the new START is too complex to be rushed through.

In response, the administration brought out the big guns who favor ratification this year. On Wednesday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Capitol Hill – with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and ranking member Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana at her side – in an attempt to try to shift momentum back in favor of ratification this session.

By the afternoon, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said he is confident a vote on the treaty will take place before the end of the year, and he said he believes the president has the votes – two-thirds of the Senate – to ratify.

While no one cites the need to maintain relations with Russia as the sole reason for ratifying the treaty, the administration's comments have implied that a failure to ratify would have a negative impact.

“Our national security has been significantly advanced … because of the Russia reset,” Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Tuesday when asked about Kyl’s position. He suggested US national security interests in “two crucial areas” would be set back by a failure to act on START: Russia’s cooperation with the NATO mission in Afghanistan and Russia's crucial role in enforcement of new international sanctions on Iran.

Obama will see Mr. Medvedev on Saturday when the two leaders participate in the first NATO-Russia Council meeting since 2008. It is part of the weekend’s NATO summit in Lisbon. Obama hoped to be able to tell Medvedev that START ratification was likely by the end of the year, but prospects for that have now dimmed.

While some Republicans scoff at the idea that putting off START ratification would seriously harm US-Russia relations, a number of Russia experts say a delay would feed the perception that Obama is weakened and unable to deliver on his commitments. And that perception, they add, could bolster Russian hardliners – in the camp of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – who are wary of Medvedev’s warming relations with Obama and America in general.

Russia wants other things from Obama as well, officials point out, including support for Russia’s accession into the World Trade Organization. Without such reciprocity, they worry, Russian cooperation could stall once again.

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