By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2011; 10:56 PM
"There are some Cold War issues that continue to return to the front of the agenda, and missile defenses, and how we interact on missile defenses, is, I would say, at the top of the list."
That was Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations last week on the next steps in U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation.
As Gottemoeller pointed out, Moscow's concern with missile defense is "nothing new," having been revealed during the days of President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" plan almost 30 years ago.
The Russians last year insisted that the preamble to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) contain language that recognizes "the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms."
Of course, that preamble has no legal effect on U.S. missile-defense planning, as U.S. negotiators made clear in their unilateral statement attached to the treaty. Nonetheless, Republicans insisted on saying that more directly in the Senate ratification resolution.
Last week, the Russian Duma, during its ratification process, added its own understanding to its resolution, which calls for Moscow to withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. unilaterally deploys missile-defense systems that endanger Russia's national security. It, like the preamble and Senate language, has no legal effect.
What will have an impact is if Moscow and Washington can work together on several missile-defense activities now underway.
Before the November NATO-Russia Council meetings in Lisbon, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev asserted three principles for a shared NATO missile-defense agreement: Russia would be a full partner, there would be shared early-warning data (such as shared sensors), and there would be assigned zones of responsibility for protection.
Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations described it as a "sincere but not serious" proposal that U.S. military planners said "would not fly" in part because the Russians do not have a missile-defense system to protect their own territory nor a sector of NATO countries in the 2015-2020 time frame.
Nonetheless, NATO working groups and the NATO-Russia Council are studying what the threat looks like, the prospect of shared early-warning data and potentially shared radars, including those operated by Russia, Gottemoeller said.
"There's a very, very fast pace of activity," she said, "and I do think that both Moscow and Washington are really intent, as are our NATO allies, in getting off the ground quickly and completing these joint threat assessments and then in moving on to look at joint concepts and really trying to figure out how to put all these pieces together."
At his annual news conference last week reviewing world affairs, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed that his country's creation of a common missile shield with Europe was key to improving relations with the West. "I am convinced that creating a common missile shield is the real and more important test for the sincerity of statements that security is indivisible," he said.
Behind this new talk of cooperation, the Russians have planted the threat of withdrawal if they are not treated as equal partners. Medvedev told the NATO-Russia Council: "Either we are fully involved, share information, are responsible for solving certain problems, or we do not participate at all."
For emphasis he added, "But if we do not participate at all, for obvious reasons, we will be forced to defend ourselves."
Lavrov also made it clear that the Senate's second post-START goal - negotiating within a year to deal with Russia's major advantage in tactical nuclear weapons - may not be met.
He brought up the traditional Moscow position that all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons - some 200 bombs stored in five European countries - would have to be taken back to the continental United States as part of any negotiation over Russia's several thousand tactical nuclear-missile warheads, artillery shells, bombs and antiaircraft weapons.
Lavrov suggested that talks on tactical nuclear weapons wouldn't happen quickly. "Before talking about any further steps in the sphere of nuclear disarmament," he cautioned, "it's necessary to fulfill the New START agreement." If he meant that the two sides cutting their strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, down from the current ceiling of 2,200, that would mean at least half a dozen years.
"Then it will become clear what further steps must be taken to strengthen global security and strategic stability," Lavrov said.
Gottemoeller agreed that tactical weapons as the next phase of nuclear arms control is going to be complicated "because we will be grappling with these smaller objects that are more difficult to address in terms of monitoring and verification [of their] elimination."
But she said discussions are taking place inside and outside both governments. She noted one paper that said there could be an overall nuclear weapons number that matched Russia's advantage in tactical, or non-strategic, nuclear weapons to the similar U.S. advantage in non-deployed, or stored, long-range weapons.
Another complicating issue tossed out by Lavrov: He said other nuclear-armed nations must take part in future talks and the agenda must include weapons in space, strategic missiles equipped with conventional explosives and other weapons.
Gottemoeller disclosed that a conference of the original five nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain - already had taken place in London, where verification and transparency cooperation were discussed. She said a second session was scheduled for Paris within the next few months.
Gottemoeller summed up: "It's little noticed, but, in fact, our relationship with Russia has undergone some great strengthening in the last couple of years."
Beyond arms control, she mentioned a "little noticed" agreement on nuclear cooperation and an arrangement to transport material through Russia to U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Lavrov concluded that improving ties between Russia and the United States were especially responsible for the increasing "healthiness of the international situation."
We'll see how long that lasts.