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Obama Missile Decision May Smooth U.S.-Russia Arms Talks

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 21, 2009

President Obama's decision to scrap a planned missile defense system that had infuriated Russia is expected to produce one quick payback: smoother talks between the two nuclear giants on renegotiating their most important arms-reduction treaty. But U.S. and Russian officials say it is too late to replace the pact before it expires in December.

Getting an updated version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, has been a centerpiece of Obama's effort to "reset" relations with Russia. U.S. officials see it as crucial to bolstering American credibility as the administration seeks to jump-start non-proliferation efforts worldwide.

But after six months of negotiations, the two governments remain divided on key questions, with Russian authorities pressing for deeper cuts in nuclear-capable launchers and bombers and U.S. officials trying to exclude from the treaty weapons converted to non-nuclear missions. Both sides have essentially given up on ratifying a treaty before Dec. 5, when START expires.

Instead, U.S. officials said they have begun exploring options for temporarily extending the treaty and preserving inspections and other verification measures that have served as the foundation for sharp reductions in the countries' nuclear arsenals for 18 years.

Officials say they are making progress in the talks, which resume Monday, and hope that Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be able sign a new treaty in December. But such a treaty would not go into effect until it is ratified, which could take months, with Senate Republicans already objecting to Obama's decision on missile defense as a giveaway to the Russians.

Obama said Thursday he was abandoning plans for a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic that Russia had denounced as a threat to its security and an obstacle in START talks. He introduced instead a partly sea-based missile defense system that would focus on protecting Europe from short- and medium-range Iranian missiles, rather than defending the United States from longer-range missiles Iran might develop in the future.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a leading skeptic of arms control treaties, said the timing of the announcement "makes clear that the administration ignored the input of senators of both parties who warned that linking START and missile defense would be ill-advised."

A senior State Department official said the Bush-era plan wasn't such a huge obstacle that it would have torpedoed a new START treaty. Still, "the overall atmospherics will be improved" in the talks after Obama's decision, said the official, who was not authorized to comment on the record.

Negotiators who will meet this week in Geneva have agreed to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads in each country to somewhere between 1,500 and 1,675, down from the previous ceiling of 2,200. But they remain far apart on how many nuclear-capable bombers, submarine-based launchers and missile silos each side can keep, with the Russians insisting on deeper cuts.

During a summit in July, Obama and Medvedev agreed that the START limit of 1,600 such "delivery vehicles" for each country should be lowered to between 1,100 and 500. Russian negotiators have not strayed far from the lower end of that range, according to the State Department official.

Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, a former commander of Russia's nuclear missile forces who has been following the talks, said negotiators appeared to be looking at a compromise of between 700 and 900 launchers and bombers.

But he said the two sides have not reached a consensus on how to count the weapons, including whether those that no longer carry nuclear warheads should be included.

The dispute reflects Russian concerns 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, a process it fears could extend American military superiority and could be used to overwhelm Russia's nuclear forces.

The United States currently has about 1,200 delivery vehicles, as counted under START rules. But that includes hundreds of "phantom" vehicles that no longer carry nuclear warheads -- such as decrepit B-52G bombers that are being cannibalized to serve other aircraft.

Under START rules, a nuclear-capable delivery vehicle could only be deducted from each side's arsenal if it was destroyed or permanently modified. The U.S. side says the procedures are too costly and complicated, and is seeking more flexible rules.

Anatoli Diakov, director of the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow, said the U.S. approach wasn't acceptable.

"They want to take a strategic weapon and say, okay, we'll rename it, it's not a strategic weapon anymore, though it still has the capability to carry nuclear bombs," he said.

U.S. negotiators are resisting Russian demands for deeper cuts in launchers and bombers in part because the U.S. nuclear arsenal is structured to use more of them than the Russian military, which has cut costs by relying on fewer missiles and placing more warheads on each. But U.S. military planners also want to preserve submarines and bombers and convert them for use on non-nuclear missions, including developing a new capability to quickly strike faraway targets with conventional payloads.

Replacing the hefty START treaty in only a few months was an ambitious task to begin with, and therefore many analysts are not surprised that the two sides haven't reached their goal. The State Department official said the delays thus far are due mainly to both sides getting their negotiating teams in place.

"It's been 20 years since we negotiated an agreement of this kind," the official said.

But Yesin said he believed there was a 50 percent chance that the two sides would fail even to sign an agreement before START expires. That could embolden critics in each country to accuse the other of intransigence and make compromise even more difficult, he warned.

"It would have a negative impact on the whole reset of relations," he said.

The new treaty is expected to win ratification fairly easily from Russia's Kremlin-controlled parliament. The U.S. Senate may be another matter.

Already, top senators from both parties have called on the Obama administration to submit, along with the treaty, a plan and budget for modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The administration's range of nuclear-weapons and missile-defense policies may come under scrutiny in the hearings.

"This will not be a quick process," said one Republican staffer involved in the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity. "These are existential issues."

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