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A False START?

Everyone, including General Makarov (front right) was smiling at the Moscow summit in July.
Everyone, including General Makarov (front right) was smiling at the Moscow summit in July.

Will there be a new U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction treaty or not?

Outwardly, politicians on both sides seem to be trying to keep up the momentum for an agreement, even though the December 5 lapsing of the 1991 START agreement has come and gone and there seems no chance that anything will be nailed down by the revised deadline of the end of the year.

Yesterday, at an end-of-the-year presser, Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov said the two sides are “half a step away” from completing the treaty. Margelov named the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations as the key event of 2009.

At a similar event today, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the proposed agreement as “radical and unprecedented,” but backed away from speculating on when it might be signed.

But one can detect a dissonant note under some of the optimistic rhetoric. Lavrov hyped the new agreement as being “of a fundamentally new quality” that “envisions equal rights and symmetric measures of control.” He seemed to be implying that the 1991 agreement -- which has been hailed as a cornerstone of global security by Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama -- was somehow defective.

This note was struck directly by Russia’s Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, who said yesterday that: “For Russia, the previous agreement was harmful. We want to conclude a fair agreement that will ensure the security of both countries.” He expressed hope that a new agreement will be signed in early 2010.

There has long been informed speculation that the Russian military is less than thrilled about the prospect of a new agreement, which reportedly will cut warheads to 1,500-1,675 (see also, here). Analysts say, pointing to the August 2008 war in Georgia, that Russia is not ready to rely on its conventional military as its main deterrent.

By emphasizing the “half step” and the “radical and unprecedented” nature of the agreement, Moscow may be preparing the ground to blame Washington if the talks collapse.

The rhetoric Moscow is using in recent days is also similar to what it deployed when Medvedev was pushing his draft treaty on European security – namely, the idea that it was necessary to radically overhaul existing agreements which Russia argues are outdated and even counterproductive. Medvedev’s proposal seems to be part of a broader Russian strategy of undermining the post-Cold War institutions that it sees as propping up the unipolar world.

It will be interesting to see if the nuclear-arms talks break down because Moscow insists on a “radical” proposal that is as much of a nonstarter as Medvedev’s draft treaty. It would also be interesting if Moscow would spell out what the problems are with START-1 and why a “radical and unprecedented” departure is needed.

On the other side of the Atlantic, “The Washington Times” is reporting that 41 U.S. senators – all the Republicans and independent Joseph Lieberman – have signed a letter to Obama saying “we don’t believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.” (See also, here.)

The senators – and there are enough of them to block ratification of any treaty in the Senate – told the president that any treaty must be submitted together with a plan for upgrading existing weapons, developing “a modern warhead,” and modernizing the country’s main weapons-development facilities.

All in all, despite Moscow’s professed “optimism” on bilateral relations, I’m starting to feel increasingly skeptical that we’ll be seeing anything more than a face-saving accord any time soon.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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