By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 4:08 PM
What to do about Russia's overwhelming advantage in tactical nuclear weapons was among several tough issues for the Obama administration that emerged from the Senate debate on the strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty.
Although public opinion was not a factor in the START debate - polls showed overwhelming support for the treaty - questions about President Obama's toughness when it comes to Moscow were repeatedly raised, previewing a guaranteed GOP issue in the 2012 election campaign.
Talking to reporters last week, a State Department official seemed to be trying to quell any expectation of quick progress on the tactical weapons issue.
"I don't want anybody to think, you know ... [we] dive right in when January rolls around, because we do have some homework to do in that regard, and I'm sure the Russians do as well," said Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. "Any big negotiation takes preparatory work and some careful consideration."
She added that the State Department will have to work with the Defense and Energy departments "to set out the parameters for the next negotiations."
But Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who tried unsuccessfully to insert the tactical weapons issue into the START treaty preamble, said,"I hope and I urge that the president, the State Department and all the others involved will pursue this issue aggressively and quickly once we have this treaty behind us."
The Russians have some 3,800 tactical weapons, compared with less than 500 in the U.S. stockpile, Risch said.
"We are no longer going to look the other way and ignore this issue," he said. "They have an advantage on us on this issue. Everyone agrees with that."
A 1991 agreement between President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev called for both countries to remove their tactical weapons to central locations and destroy all nuclear artillery, demolition mines and warheads for short-range missiles. There were no provisions for verification on either side, and none has taken place.
Risch and other Republicans pointed out that as Russian troop levels have diminished, Moscow's military leaders have focused increasingly on tactical nuclear weapons.
"They continue cranking out ... new designs, new technology, new development and new production of these tactical weapons - continuing to add to the disparity," Risch said. "Some Russian military experts have written about use of very low-yield nuclear 'scalpels' to defeat NATO forces."
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who led the treaty debate opposition, chimed in on the tactical issue, saying, "I can't imagine anyone denying the fact that as we reduce our strategic offensive weapons, then the number of tactical nuclear weapons becomes all the more important, especially because of the large difference between the Russians and everyone else in the world."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev more than once has threatened to move tactical missiles west in response to U.S. plans to place elements of a missile defense system in Eastern European countries to counter Iran.
For example, concern was ignited across Europe recently when stories appeared about Russia moving tactical nuclear weapons near the border of NATO countries. During last week's Senate treaty debate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had to explain in a letter to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that a short-range ballistic missile unit had long been stationed near Russia's border with Estonia. They added that Moscow had announced that its newer SS-26 short-range missiles would be stationed there.
Recognizing the unease such actions cause, the Clinton-Gates letter went on: "Although this deployment does not alter either the balance in Europe or the U.S.-Russia strategic balance, the U.S. has made clear that we believe Russia should further consolidate its tactical nuclear weapons in a small number of secure facilities deep within Russia."
Their comment about the Russians moving their tactical weapons east and far away from Russia's borders with NATO countries brings up what will be the first sticking point in dealing with Moscow about the weapons.
As Gottemoeller framed it last week with reporters: "Anybody who's followed this over the years knows that the Russian Federation has had a kind of - well, clear conditionality for beginning negotiations on tac nukes, and that is that NATO should bring all of the nuclear weapons deployed in NATO - on NATO territory in Europe - back to the continental United States before Russia - and this is a long-standing conditionality, was from Soviet times - before they would consider beginning talks in this arena."