Has President Obama outwaited Russia on nuclear control?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

THE LONG delay in the completion of a new arms-control treaty between the United States and Russia has been, in part, a game of expectations. Both sides know that Russia needs a deal far more than does the United States, to bolster its withered status as a superpower and because it probably cannot sustain its current nuclear arsenal. But Russian strongman Vladimir Putin seems to have been betting that President Obama, who has made nuclear arms control a priority and who has, to date, few foreign policy accomplishments, may want the treaty more than he does. So Moscow has been stalling for months on completing the deal while trying to extract American concessions.

In Moscow on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the two governments were finally "on the brink" of an accord. If that means Mr. Obama has managed to outwait Mr. Putin, the president will have reason to celebrate -- and more clout as he enters the summit on nuclear security that he has convened for Washington next month.

The main outlines of the deal have been known for months: Russia and the United States will each reduce their active nuclear arsenals by about a quarter, from 2,200 warheads to about 1,600. That will be accompanied by a reduction in delivery systems, such as intercontinental missiles and bombers. The reduction would take the two countries back to where their arsenals stood in the early 1960s and far below the levels of the Cold War, when there were 10,000 warheads on each side.

One sticking point has been verification. Russia has wanted to weaken the regime built into the START treaty, which expired in December; in particular it has wanted to stop providing data from missile tests it conducts. Though some experts believe technological advances mean that the United States could collect the data in other ways, a dilution of these procedures could make it impossible for the treaty to clear the Senate, where it will need 67 votes.

Mr. Putin also has sought to insert controls on U.S. missile defense into the treaty -- particularly following an ill-timed announcement by Romania in January that it would be a host of the European interceptor system that the Obama administration is planning. Though those missile defenses are aimed at Iran, Russia continues to oppose them, in large part because of Mr. Putin's desire to prevent any U.S. military presence in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

This is an issue that really matters: The continued development and deployment of missile defenses arguably means more to U.S. security than a new nuclear weapons deal with Russia. Mr. Obama agreed last summer to the notion that there is a link between offensive and defensive strategic weapons; the administration has been ready to accept language to that effect in the preamble of the treaty. But any provision that would limit U.S. flexibility on missile defenses or their deployment in Europe would be unacceptable. If, as Ms. Clinton suggests, an agreement really is at hand, we trust Mr. Putin has finally accepted that reality.

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