The US Senate Ratified START

WASHINGTON – And so president Obama managed to have the US Senate ratify by a reasonable margin the new START treaty with Russia. The treaty stipulates cutting US and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals by about 30 per cent. Both sides also agree to certain sub ceilings regarding individual components of their arsenals and to restart a mutual inspection regime as part of the treaty verification process. And so it is.

The substance of this treaty

As for substance, while it is important, this treaty changes little. Arsenals are cut; but not too much. The essential components and the logic of mutual deterrence, regarding the nuclear balance between the US and Russia, still remains, more or less as before. Even with lower numbers, the residual arsenals are going to be more than enough to reaffirm each other’s ability to deter an attack by maintaining virtually invulnerable second strike forces that would be used to retaliate against a nuclear aggression, even a massive one. Sure enough, we can say that there is some gain in reducing redundant forces; but it is difficult to say what the gain exactly is, beyond decommissioning some forces and thus lowering operating and maintenance costs for a smaller arsenal.

The nuclear balance with Russia today

Beyond this, the larger point is that nowadays, while even small numbers of nuclear weapons in the hands of rougue states worry us a lot, in the context of more relaxed US Russia relations, residual large arsenals are no longer center stage. They are relevant, of course, but not so central, as the Cold War is over, bilateral relations are more relaxed and fears of confrontations escalating to a conflict are low. In contrast, in the context of a much more volatile relations between Pakistan and India tiny nuclear arsenals play a much bigger role.

The relevance of nuclear arsenals in the Cold War

In the Cold War, when hostile intentions were assumed as a matter of course, even marginal changes in technologies and weapons developments were watched very carefully, in case our opponents might gain an edge that would allow overconfidence. The prevailing thinking was that  peace in large measure depended on keeping a balance so that both sides would remain convinced that neither one could prevail, whatever the scenario.

The Cold War and “Mutual Assured Destruction”

In the old Cold War days, in the context of an inherently inimical and potentially unstable relationship in which many factors could lead to conflict, a carefully crafted nuclear balance played a stabilizing role by reinforcing mutual awareness and recognition that a nuclear war could not be won by either side. The balance of forces, as preserved via arms treaties created a mutually acceptable stalemate whereby there would be no gain for either side in launching an attack. We used to call this state of affairs “MAD”, or “Mutual Assured Destruction”. And, on balance, that was good.

Given the inimical underlying relationship, without the absolute certainty that nuclear war could not be won, a crisis might have tempted either side to launch an attack. But since the end of the Soviet Union relations with Russia are no longer driven by the notion that we are each other’s existential enemies. While not exactly friendly, relations with Moscow are not terminally adversarial.

New treaty does not alter the balance

It is hard to imagine today, in this new post-communism context, an emerging conflict with Moscow escalating to a nuclear confrontation that might get out of hand. Be that as it may, the old nuclear balance still exists. And the new treaty does not fundamentally alter it. In the end we are still going to have the same mutual deterrence based on the same logic; but at somewhat reduced numbers. So, overall it is perhaps better to have the treaty –and most security experts, plus a long list of former policy-makers agree. But no big deal if did not happen. The danger of a conflict with Russia is not a major concern these days. And therefore successful arms control negotiations no longer provide, as they used to be during the Cold War, the central role of stabilizer within an otherwise volatile relationship predicated on terminal ideological animosity.

Wider transformations because of START?

If we take this historic background and the now radically changed context into account, it is surprising to see how so many commentators hailed this Senate vote as a major foreign policy victory for President Barack Obama, as if this treaty would usher a new era in US Russia relations and, in fact, create a new atmosphere that will pervade the the whole international political system.

Indeed, it has been said that, as START will reduce the number of weapons in the two biggest nuclear arsenals, it should be viewed by the international community as a concrete step towards denuclearization by the two major nuclear powers, thus fulfilling the disarmament promises made by nuclear weapons states at the time of the signing of the Non Proliferation Treaty. This is silly. Some reductions, yes. Denuclearization, especially in this era of nuclear proliferation pursued by Iran and North Korea, never.

Ratification as political victory for president Obama

On a different level, in their usual narrowly focused fashion, Washington pundits said that this arms control treaty ratification is a major political victory for the President, as it proves that Barack Obama could win Republican support for “his” treaty. His Treaty? And I thought that this treaty was negotiated and sent for ratification by the administration because it was supposed to be good for America’s national security and, as such, considered on its merits, deserving wide bi-partisan support. No, now we have to place the Senate vote in the plus column for Obama who has shown once more that, despite the November elections defeat, he is still in control of the national political agenda.

So much for creating bi-partisan support on national security, when Senate ratification of a nuclear weapons treaty is characterized as a victory for the president and a defeat for the Republicans.

Republican opposition

Some Republicans fought hard against ratification, arguing, (too much frankly), that a non binding treaty preamble inserted by the Russians in which they restate long standing opposition to missile defenses could be used by Moscow later on to thwart or delay US efforts in ballistic missile defenses. It was argued that the Russian may use new US ballistic missiles defense programs, (devised primarily to protect us and our allies against rogue nuclear states), as an excuse to threaten withdrawal from this START treaty, thus creating political pressure for Washington not to go ahead with defensive weapons. In the end, heated debate and all, the treaty was ratified with substantial Republican support.

Treaty as a way to reset relations with Moscow

But the more disturbing point is that this treaty has been sold by the administration and by many supporters in Congress as a necessary and tangible way to show the Russians that now, after the many bad years under mean spirited President George W. Bush, we are here to be nice and to be trusted. We want to “reset” relations with Moscow, and ratifying this START treaty is a concrete way to implement the “reset”. This is foolish and perhaps even dangerous, as it encourages wishful thinking as to what “nice gestures” may accomplish.

According to this line of thinking, the treaty should be regarded in large measure as good will towards the Russians and as a tangible demonstration of Washington’s willingness to engage with a country that can help us out with Iran’s nuclear proliferation efforts and ease our logistics related to our war in Afghanistan, and so on. And yet, if we accept this approach, now we have the general endorsement of arms control negotiations and agreements as “feel good politics”, and thus as means to get other things from Moscow.

Give and take is normal, up to a point

Of course, we all agree that give and take is the norm in diplomacy. But this is about our nuclear deterrent. This is supposedly about the survival of the United States, not about concessions here to get something important there. In essence, the substance of the treaty has been at least in part overshadowed by the political expectation that the mere fact of having a treaty ratified creates a warm atmosphere with Moscow conducive to other things. Well, it may be so. Or it may not be.

What is Russia willing to reset?

Coincidence or not, just a few days after the Senate voted in favor of ratification, a Russian court is expected to sentence the already imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to a few more years in jail, just to make sure that he does not get out any time soon –or preferably never. Worldwide, Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment is regarded as a political vendetta wanted by then President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin and enforced by docile courts. The fact that the Russians want to keep Khodorkovsky in prison indefinitely, alleging now the discovery of new major crimes of theft and money laundering related to his tenure as Yukos’ CEO, is largely regarded as further evidence that there is no such thing as rule of law in Russia. It is also evidence that Russia does not care nor does it feel embarrassed because of the stain caused by its brazen use of courts for political purposes.

Reset does not include rule of law

But what about being nice, now that we have a good “reset” via arms control? How about Russia adopting prevailing standards of fairness and justice? How about starting on this new road with leniency towards Khodorkovsky, a man who has already been destroyed and dispossessed, owing to his political opposition to the new post-Yeltsin power elites? Well, the very fact that the Russian authorities, notwithstanding the almost universal negative publicity that they are getting on account of this unashamedly political trial, will carry on and do as they please, is an indicator of how much they care about “resetting” a better tone in their relations with the west via engaging in reforms on matters that we care about, such as justice and human rights.

Illiberal Russia

We passed the START treaty at least in part as a gesture of good will, to show Moscow how much we want to be friends. With the Khodorkovsky fake trial they politely reply that, in case we forgot, Russia is still very much an authoritarian, illiberal state and proud of it. So much for the early practical results of using arms control as feel good balm.

Of course, there is a lot more than an impartial Russian judiciary at stake in Washington’s relations with Moscow. We shall see how things will progress on other fronts.

But my expectations are very low. Somehow, it is hard to believe that a political leadership that enforces its authority at home via intimidation, censorship and political persecution masked as judicial proceedings will be sensitive to anything other than superior power and steadfastness in dealing with us.

Arms reduction are fine; but do not oversell

In the end, as many recognized experts have stated, on balance it may be a good thing to have ratified this START treaty aimed at reducing redundant nuclear arsenals. But let’s be realistic as to the kind of relationship we can have with an authoritarian Russia. The START ratification does not change the fact that we are dealing with a rather backward, illiberal country that can be engaged only up to a point. To believe or let others believe in the magic of “reset” is foolish.

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