Critics uneasy about Russian concessions in arms-control deal

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 8, 2010

MOSCOW -- As President Obama prepares to sign a landmark arms-control treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a chorus of skeptics here is quietly expressing concerns that Moscow has conceded too much in the deal.

The concerns, fueled by lingering suspicions and anxieties about the vast superiority of U.S. conventional forces, will do little to impede the signing of the treaty in Prague on Thursday. But they will render difficult further progress toward Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

In a sign of the Kremlin's own unease about how the treaty will be received in Russia, neither Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has uttered a word about it in public, even as Obama called a news conference to celebrate the conclusion of the talks and followed up this week by unveiling the findings of his administration's review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

Criticism of the new treaty has focused on its failure to set any limits on U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe -- long a point of friction with Russia -- as well as a change in rules that will make it easier for the Pentagon to keep nuclear warheads in storage and quickly rebuild the U.S. arsenal if necessary. Others have delivered an even broader critique, questioning whether the entire post-Cold War enterprise of nuclear disarmament, including the now-expired 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, has served Russia's interests.

"The departing point or assumption of the critics is that the previous treaty was detrimental to Russian security, and the new treaty, which contains more concessions of Russia to the United States, will be still more detrimental," said Alexei Arbatov, an arms-control scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and former member of the Russian parliament.

Limit on warheads

The treaty calls for both nations to cut their deployed arsenals to 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 missile silos and bombers each, with an additional 100 such launchers permitted to be in repair or other noncombat status.

On the ground, experts say, the treaty will ultimately require a U.S. reduction of about 100 launchers, the equivalent of two squadrons of Minuteman III missiles. Russia deploys fewer launchers than the ceiling set by the treaty.

The limit on warheads should result in cuts by both nations. How deep the reductions will be is unclear, though, because of a new provision that counts bombers as carrying one warhead each regardless of how many are stored on their bases or they are capable of carrying.

The overall deal may seem like a generous one for Russia, and given the Kremlin's tight grip on the political system, ratification of the treaty will no doubt prove easier in the Russian Duma than in the U.S. Senate, where its prospects remain uncertain. But Russian analysts note two substantial concessions by the Kremlin.

Unlike the original START, they say, the new treaty won't count the maximum number of warheads each missile can carry, thus allowing Washington to make cuts by removing and storing warheads while keeping missiles in their silos. That means the United States could quickly rebuild its forces and dwarf the Russian arsenal, which relies on missiles that have less room for extra warheads.

"The good news is that your stockpile will be reduced, but the bad news is that you will have more warheads that could be redeployed in six to 12 months," said Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies.

A more obvious retreat by Moscow relates to missile defense, which Putin publicly insisted as recently as December be included in the treaty. Although the Kremlin applauded Obama's decision to scrap President George W. Bush's version of the system, Russian officials have since voiced concerns about the regional shield Obama proposed instead, noting U.S. assertions that it would eventually use interceptors fast enough to strike a Russian intercontinental missile.

Sergei Brezkun, a professor at the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, said missile defense and a reduced Russian nuclear arsenal would embolden the United States to take dangerous risks. "When a person gets an advantage, he can go too far," Brezkun said. "Unfortunately, further cuts would not only leave Russia more vulnerable, but strategic stability in the world will be more vulnerable."

Talks on tactical weapons

The Obama administration has said that it wants the next stage of negotiations to include tactical nuclear weapons, of which the United States has about 500 in its active arsenal and Russia about 2,000.

But Russian officials say that such talks must be linked to NATO's superior conventional forces, as well as missile defense, and that the United States must first withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe, where some allies want them to remain as a symbol of U.S. commitment to defending the continent.

Pavel Podvig, an arms-control researcher at Stanford University, said a new round of talks trying to balance U.S. forces against Russian ones would only open "a can of worms." If the new treaty fosters enough trust, though, the two nations might agree that tactical nuclear weapons have no military value and treat them as a safety issue, he said. "You have to approach it as securing something that is dangerous and useless," Podvig said.

Experts say further nuclear cuts would certainly face resistance from the Russian military. But Alexander Golts, an author and military analyst, said there is a growing consensus within the leadership that Russia's vast arsenal far exceeds its needs and is draining funds needed for conventional arms that might actually be used in a war.

"Military people who are professional know that, with or without this treaty, Russia has to reduce its arsenal," he said. "All these conservatives talking about the treaty not being good for Russia, it's just militaristic rhetoric. It has nothing to do with reality."

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