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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
U.S.-Russian Strategic Dialogue in Limbo
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Wade Boese

Several weeks after the Russian-Georgian military conflict and several weeks before the United States elects a new president, formal U.S.-Russian talks on nuclear weapons and anti-missile systems are languishing. Neither Moscow nor Washington seem eager to change the pace, suggesting the two capitals might be content simply to let the dialogue linger until the next U.S. administration takes power.

U.S. and Russian government experts apparently last met a few months ago to talk about their strategic nuclear weapons. John Herzberg, a Department of State spokesperson, told Arms Control Today Sept. 10 that the U.S.-Russian process is “under review.” The talks have been stalemated for some time, and President George W. Bush and then-President Vladimir Putin failed in April to make any breakthroughs at their last summit in Sochi, Russia. (See ACT, May 2008.)

Speaking to reporters at the United Nations Sept. 29, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a glum assessment of the talks. “Negotiations between us and Washington to make sure that after START I treaty expires in December 2009 we have some meaningful strategic arms control regime, these negotiations are not so far heading anywhere,” Lavrov said.

Still, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the two major parties’ presidential nominees, say they would pursue negotiations to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear force levels. The U.S. strategic stockpile is estimated to be about 5,400 warheads; a little more than half of those weapons, 2,871, are reported by the Bush administration to be operationally deployed. Meanwhile, Russia reports some 4,100 strategic warheads as deployed under the terms of the 1991 START agreement.

The Kremlin has taken notice of the candidates’ statements. In a Sept. 15 article published in NG-Dipkuryer, Lavrov wrote that, “during the current U.S. presidential campaign, sensible voices have begun to be heard, particularly about the need to maintain real control over strategic offensive arms.”

Russia has been pressing the Bush administration to agree to lower force limits on strategic warheads and long-range delivery vehicles, including those that might carry non-nuclear warheads in accordance with U.S. plans to develop a so-called prompt global strike capability. (See ACT, June 2008.) Those plans, coupled with the Bush administration’s efforts to deploy 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland, have roiled Russia. Lavrov charged in a Sept. 11 interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that the Bush administration is pursuing a path of “upsetting…parity and gaining a unilateral advantage in the strategic domain.”

The U.S.-Russian relationship has been further aggravated by Russia’s August military invasion and continuing occupation of Georgia, a former Soviet republic whose leadership is striving to pull free from Moscow’s orbit. Russia at the end of August recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions, and Lavrov said Sept. 18 that Russia is setting up “military bases…and military contingents” in the disputed territories.

In his prepared remarks to a Sept. 17 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, declared that “Russia’s behavior raises serious questions about the future of our relations with a resurgent, nuclear-armed energy-rich great power.” Formerly a U.S. ambassador to Russia, Burns added that the United States does “not have the luxury of ignoring” Russia and said the two countries need to set a “good example for the rest of the world in managing and reducing our own nuclear arsenals.”

Russia and the United States are currently committed through the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads apiece by Dec. 31, 2012, which is the same day that the limits lapse. SORT contains no measures to verify that progress is being made toward the treaty’s goal, so the two sides rely on the START verification regime to share information on and permit inspections of their nuclear forces. START, however, is scheduled to expire Dec. 5, 2009, three years before SORT is supposed to be fulfilled.

U.S. and Russian negotiations to explore a post-START arrangement, including possibly extending certain verification elements of the treaty, got underway in March 2007 but have stalled. Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, told reporters Sept. 3 that “the post-START effort is very important to us and we’ll try to continue forward.” Russian sources contend that the United States has not supplied promised working papers necessary to move the process forward.

Similarly, Lavrov said Sept. 11 in Poland that Russia is “still awaiting concrete proposals from our U.S. colleagues” on easing tensions surrounding the planned anti-missile deployment, which Russia charges is aimed at it rather than Iran, as claimed by the United States. U.S. officials have at various times floated measures, such as permitting Russia inspection privileges at proposed U.S. bases, but apparently Russia is waiting on more formal proposals and answers to a set of questions it submitted to the United States on the anti-missile system.

Meanwhile, the United States and the Czech Republic Sept. 19 signed an agreement establishing the future legal status of U.S. personnel that will operate a Czech-based radar intended to provide missile tracking information to any future Polish-based interceptors. A week earlier in Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev explained that “Russia cannot feel comfortable in a situation where military bases are increasingly being built around it, and there are more and more missiles and anti-missile defense systems.”