With Russian ratification of New START, what's next for US-Russia relations?

The New START treaty, which Russia's Federation Council ratified today, is a major step in resetting US-Russia relations, yet many major issues remain.

Mikhail Metzel/AP
A general view of Russia's lower parliament chamber during a session in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Jan. 25. The State Duma is debating the ratification of the New START treaty with the US.

The New START nuclear arms reduction treaty – the most ambitious US-Russia strategic accord since the cold war – cleared its final hurdle Wednesday by winning unanimous approval from Russia's upper house of parliament.

The deal, which will see strategic nuclear arsenals on both sides slashed by about 30 percent, was ratified by the more rambunctious State Duma, the lower house, on Tuesday by a comfortable vote of 350 to 96. (Members of the upper house, called the Federation Council, are effectively appointed by the Kremlin, while a few opposition deputies still sit in the elected Duma).

Experts say the treaty's passage through Russia's parliament has been a foregone conclusion since the US Senate gave it a far-less-predictable stamp of approval during its lame-duck session last month.

"There were no doubts that the Duma would pass this, since it's clear to all that this is a necessary and beneficial agreement for Russia," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Russia's economy cannot afford to compete with the US in this area, and this accord sets a level that supports strategic stability. It also corrects the system of mutual verification of nuclear armaments [which had lapsed], making it simpler but essentially as effective as before."

President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to sign the ratification document soon, allowing New START to come into legal force.

Skepticism about New START

The treaty still faces strong skepticism from some in the US who worry Russia might use wording in the document's preamble, which links offensive weapons cuts with the still-contentious issue of missile defense, to limit US strategic freedom of action in future.

Before passing the ratification bill Tuesday, the Duma amended it to stress Russia's right to withdraw from START if the US upsets the strategic balance with any major missile defense initiatives.

"The treaty will work only if the US observes its conditions," the head of the Duma's foreign affairs commission, Konstantin Kosachyev, told journalists Tuesday.

Later that day, President Obama said during his State of the Union message that the deal shows that efforts to halt the proliferation of atomic arms around the world are alive and well. "American leadership can also be seen in the effort to secure the worst weapons of war," he said. "Because Republicans and Democrats approved the New START Treaty, far fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed."

Where does the 'reset' go from here?

But even with the treaty's ratification, there's still much work ahead of any US-Russia relations "reset," which Mr. Obama launched after his inauguration without a central focus.

"With the ratification of START, the agenda has been exhausted," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the leading foreign policy journal Russia in Global Affairs. "Now we need to move on to a new stage. But the issues [like arms control] that were clear and easy for both sides to understand have now been dealt with. We might also note that the political situation in both countries has worsened."

Both Russia and the US are likely to be increasingly preoccupied with domestic politics over the coming year. Republicans gained heavily in recent mid-term elections, making it harder for Obama to win Congressional approval for new initiatives. Russia faces Duma elections in December, followed three months later by presidential polls.

The growing competition between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to run as the establishment candidate in those elections is likely to dominate Russian politics in coming months.

The immediate challenge facing US-Russian relations is to find a compromise on NATO plans to construct an antimissile shield in Europe, which Russia fears would undermine its nuclear deterrent.

Beyond that, experts say, is a list of complicated issues on which the two sides must find common ground if the "reset" is to continue, including cooperation in Afghanistan, curbing Iran's alleged nuclear weapons drive, promoting Middle East peace, and addressing global financial instability.

"Ratification of START opens prospects for the solution of other issues between the US and Russia, and there certainly are a lot of those," says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti news agency. "It seems like we've overcome one barrier, just to face higher ones ahead of us."

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