By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 6, 2009
MOSCOW, June 5 -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will try to break a deadlock in talks to replace a vital nuclear-arms-control treaty when they meet here Monday, with U.S. missile defense plans and Russian demands for sharper cuts in launchers presenting the key obstacles.
"Right now, there are very serious gaps in the Russian and American positions," said Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow, who has been monitoring the talks through Russian negotiators.
If the presidents emerge without the outline of a deal, it may be impossible to adopt an accord to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires in December, analysts say. That would unravel verification mechanisms that have been critical to reducing both countries' nuclear arsenals and could undermine global efforts against nuclear proliferation.
It would also cast a shadow over the three-day summit, as both leaders have made replacing the treaty, known as START I, the centerpiece of their efforts to "reset" bilateral relations badly strained during the Bush administration.
"If Obama leaves Moscow disillusioned, he may decide it's not worth the political capital, time and energy to deal with so-called defiant rogues in Moscow," said Dmitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington. The Russians, meanwhile, are inclined to believe "that not much can be accomplished with the United States," he said.
Gary Samore, an Obama aide responsible for issues of weapons of mass destruction, told reporters Sunday that he expected the presidents to announce progress on a treaty Monday but not a final deal. "The negotiators have narrowed the differences, identified key issues, and I think it will be possible for the presidents to have a good discussion and, hopefully, reach agreement" on some issues, he said.
Negotiators have tentatively agreed on a modest reduction in the 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads permitted under the Moscow Treaty signed in 2002, perhaps to about 1,500.
But there has been no breakthrough in the stalemate over a U.S. plan to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe to counter a potential threat from Iran. Russia says the shield would undermine its ability to deter an American nuclear strike, and Medvedev recently warned that Russia will not accept any treaty unless its concerns are addressed.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials have balked at Moscow's insistence on steep cuts in the numbers of long-range missile launchers and heavy bombers that each side can keep.
START set a limit of 1,600 such "delivery systems" for each country, and U.S. negotiators have offered to reduce that to the range of 1,000 to 1,100. But Russia wants to set the ceiling closer to 600, Rogov said.
The demand reflects Russian anxiety about the Pentagon's ability to quickly rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal by taking warheads out of storage and putting them on missiles and bombers again.
The Russian military is also worried about U.S. plans to refit missiles and bombers with conventional payloads, which it fears could extend American military superiority and could be used to overwhelm Russia's nuclear forces.
In data disclosed under START in January, the United States said it had about 1,200 delivery systems and Russia reported about 800.
The Obama administration can bring the U.S. count down by dismantling about 100 missile silos no longer in use. But achieving sharper cuts would mean taking down active missile silos, implementing costly modifications to submarines and destroying bombers assigned to nonnuclear missions.
Pavel Podvig, an arms-control scholar at Stanford University, said none of these options is politically feasible because the administration has not completed a Congress-mandated review of U.S. nuclear strategy. If Obama agreed to any of them, Republican lawmakers, who generally oppose limits on delivery systems, "would eat him alive," Podvig said.
On missile defense, Obama has said he is still reviewing the plan inherited from President George W. Bush to deploy interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. But a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, highlighted the analysis of a Stanford physicist, Dean Wilkening, who recently challenged the Bush plan.
In an interview, Wilkening said he presented the White House with data showing two alternatives that would better protect Europe from an Iranian missile attack: one with a radar in Turkey and interceptors in Romania and the other using a version of the Navy's Aegis theater missile defense system expected to be available in 2015.
Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, former commander of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, said Moscow would not accept deployment of long-range interceptors in Romania but would welcome a system built around the Aegis system, which the Russian military does not consider a strategic threat.
Even as it explores alternatives, though, the Obama administration has refused Russian demands to openly renounce the Polish-Czech plan. Analysts said that the administration does not want to be seen as giving in to Russian pressure or abandoning allies in Europe, and that it believes a provision limiting missile defense would make it harder to win Senate ratification of a new treaty.
Medvedev, who took office last year, is also under pressure not to back down, a situation complicated by his partnership with his powerful patron and predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev agreed to remove missile defense from the scope of treaty talks when he met with Obama in April, the senior administration official said. But in recent weeks, top Russian military officials have made a series of public statements demanding that the Polish-Czech plan be scrapped in any accord.
"This is a very visible and politically useful issue, and a lot of people are getting a lot of mileage out of the controversy," Podvig said. "There are people in Moscow who are not really interested in having an agreement."
In remarks broadcast on state television Sunday, Medvedev said he considered missile defense "interconnected" with the arms-control treaty. But he hinted at some flexibility, saying it would be "sufficient" for Obama to "show restraint and show an ability to compromise."
Meanwhile, in an interview with the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper to be published Monday, Obama repeated assurances that U.S. missile defenses were not aimed at Russia, saying, "Such thinking is simply a legacy of the Cold War."
"We have not yet decided how we will configure missile defense in Europe," he added, "but my sincere hope is that Russia will be a partner in that project."
Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, former chief of the Russian military's main research institute for nuclear strategy, said a compromise is possible if the presidents are determined to make the summit a success. Rules for counting launchers could be adjusted, he said, and Washington could commit to a five-year moratorium on deployment of missile defenses while it studies its options.
Other analysts suggested a provision delaying deployment until the danger from Iran is confirmed, along with a commitment to conduct a joint threat assessment and to work together on missile defense.
Cooperation on missile defense is considered a pet cause of Putin's, and the Obama administration has expressed interest in offers to use Russian radars in the Krasnodar region and in Azerbaijan for early detection of missile launches in Iran.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said a pact to work together on missile defense would be a major breakthrough because it could undermine "the central premise of Russian strategic thinking -- that the United States has a hidden agenda to destroy Russia."
But he added: "I'm not very optimistic this will happen at this meeting."