An almost audible sigh of relief arose in Moscow after the US Senate ratified the New START nuclear arms control accord Wednesday. The vote ends weeks of nail-biting uncertainty and ensures that President Obama's shaky "reset" of US-Russia relations remains on track, at least for now.
President Dmitry Medvedev, currently on a state visit to India, used Twitter to inform the world that he was "pleased" at news of the unexpected bipartisan Senate vote of 71-26, and "expressed the hope" that Russia's parliament would move swiftly to ratify the treaty.
Within hours of Mr. Medvedev's tweet, the speaker of Russia's State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, announced that parliamentarians would likely ratify the document Friday – as long as the US Senate hasn't inserted any tricky new language into the text.
"There is information that the resolution contains several conditions," Mr. Gryzlov said Thursday. "Unless the conditions concern the wording of the treaty, we may ratify the treaty tomorrow."
The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) mandate of roughly 30 percent cuts to Russia and US nuclear arsenals is generally conceded to be quite modest – considering that the two former rivals still possess more than 95 percent of the world's atomic weapons – but the political symbolism of the deal is intense. Mr. Obama chose to make strategic arms talks the centerpiece of his calculated "reset" of relations with Russia and any failure to finalize the deal might have plunged the two sides into an instant cold bath.
"We have been asking, 'Is the cold war really over?' The ratification of this treaty tells us, 'Yes, it's over,' " says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Clearly we agree that in future we must find the ways to act together. The main question now on the agenda is, what do we do next?"
But the way forward isn't so clear. Most analysts agree there is no more scope for cutting strategic nuclear arsenals, so New START is likely to be the last of its kind for at least a decade. The Russians, in particular, are almost totally dependent on their Soviet-era deterrent of aging intercontinental missiles for external security – as well as their claim to great power status – and would be extremely reluctant to slash beyond the 1,550 nuclear warheads mandated for each side by the new accord.
A joint NATO-Russia commission is studying ways the two sides can cooperate on building an antimissile shield to protect Europe from "rogue" missile attacks. That group is set to submit its findings next June, but the two sides are reportedly far apart. Russia has threatened that it might withdraw from START and launch a new arms race if there is no agreement.
On the other hand, Republicans in the US Senate have complained that Russia still holds a vast superiority in tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by START, and are demanding the Obama administration force Moscow to negotiate a drawdown in those "battlefield nukes," which are heavily deployed in Europe. The Russians retort that they need more smaller nuclear weapons to offset NATO's huge preponderance in conventional forces.
"This START treaty solves only one problem: how to reduce offensive nuclear arsenals," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "But it leads directly to several other problems, which we don't yet have any handle on, such as missile defense and tactical nuclear weapons. Beyond that, there are many other problems that await action. We will need to keep moving down this road, or the momentum will stall."
Some experts say the biggest threat to the "reset" has nothing to do with the military balance. The acrimonious politics on display in Washington lately have surprised and unsettled many Russian observers, who fear that if Obama goes down in 2012, so will the "reset."
"Many of us were extremely alarmed, especially after the Republican victory in the midterm elections, and very concerned about the destiny of START and the reset," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a prominent Moscow strategic think tank. "Frankly, there was no conviction in Russian foreign policy circles that START would get ratified at all."
"Unfortunately we see that the Republicans have mutated into something unrecognizable," he says. "The Kissinger type of Republicans – realistic about the need to build bipartisan support for arms control – seem to be almost extinct, and in their place are people who just see Russia as an enemy. If they come to power, they will never make deals with Moscow. So, if the reset is to continue, Obama and the Democrats are the only possible partner for us."