MOSCOW -- With the clock running out on a new US-Russian arms treaty before the previous Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, expires on December 5, a senior White House official said Sunday said that the difficulty of the task might mean temporarily bypassing the Senate’s constitutional role in ratifying treaties by enforcing certain aspects of a new deal on an executive levels and a “provisional basis” until the Senate ratifies the treaty.
"The most ideal situation would be to finish it in time that it could be submitted to the Senate so that it can be ratified," said White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Security and Arms Control Gary Samore. "If we're not able to do that, we'll have to look at arrangements to continue some of the inspection provisions, keep them enforced in a provisional basis, while the Senate considers the treaty."
Samore said administration lawyers are exploring the "different options that are available. One option is that both sides could agree to continue the inspections by executive agreement; that would work on our side. On the Russian side, as I understand it, that would require Duma approval."
The fact that the administration is preparing for such an extraordinary measure shows just how much pressure the two administrations are under to arrive at an agreement before the 18-year-old treaty expires. While resident Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to announce progress tomorrow on a nuclear arms reduction treaty – nicknamed “New START” -- to take effect in just five short months, many sticking points that remain unresolved.
The 1991 START treaty's pending expiration means “we are under the gun to try to get something to replace it by the end of the year,” Michael McFaul, special assistant to the President and senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters last week.
Both the US and Russia have agreed in principle to reduce the number of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles from the current level of 1,600 each, as was negotiated under START, and to reduce the number of nuclear warheads each nation has in its arsenal from 2,200 each, as agreed upon during the 2002 Moscow Treaty.
One of the major sticking points so far has been Russia’s continued frustration at US plans for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, an issue Samore said would “have to be addressed in the new treaty,” though he would not specify just how.
“We think we have a good argument,” Samore said, stressing that the “very modest” US plans are “not designed to defeat the Russian nuclear deterrent.” The program would only serve as a shield against attacks from countries such as North Korea and Iran, with few missiles, and not Russia, with its extensive arsenal.
But Medvedev in an interview with European reporters did not seem inclined to hear such an argument, at least about Iran.
“In terms of missile defense Poland and the Czech Republic are one thing, Iran is a different one altogether, they are too far apart geographically,” he said. “I do not understand how people can say that missile defense is linked to the problems of the Middle East.” He allowed that “the missiles that North Korea is using have tremendous range. This has to be of concern for us. We are located in close proximity to this country.”
Medvedev said that “offensive nuclear capabilities do not exist by themselves, rather they exist together with the means for defending against them, that is anti-missile defense.” The Russian president argued that “the Russian Federation is not against the development of such a means of defense. But we believe that it should not be unilateral nor, in essence, directed against one of the participants in this dialogue, a major nuclear country such as Russia. We believe that the decisions that were taken on this topic have put us in a difficult position.”
After more than four hours worth of meetings with Medvedev on Monday, President Obama and his Russian counterpart will outline what is essentially yet another outline for a treaty. In London in April the two outlined what was an outline for this outline. Since that time, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller and her counterpart, Anatoly Antonov, the head of the department for security and disarmament in the Russian Foreign Ministry, have been negotiating intensely.
President Obama told Russia’s ITAR-TASS/ROSSIYA TV that his “goal is that both countries reduce their nuclear stockpiles in a way that doesn't leave either country with an advantage, but reduces tensions and the expense of maintaining such high nuclear stockpiles when they're not necessary for our defense and our deterrence."
But how to make sure neither side has an advantage is not a simple matter of numbers – because the counting is complicated. Another sticking point includes how to count nuclear weapons reductions given the asymmetrical nature of the US and Russian forces. Russian nuclear warheads are more land based; US warheads are more sea-based. Russians favor more warheads on fewer launchers; the US favors fewer warheads on more launchers.
US negotiators are also arguing that weapons once used as part of the nuclear arsenal but since changed for conventional use – three Trident submarines with 48 launching tubes; the entire B-1 bomber force; and a number of B-52 aircraft that haven’t been eliminated but aren’t currently in operating condition – shouldn’t be counted as nuclear weapon delivery vehicles.
How the Russians would be able to verify the continued conventional use of these submarines and airplanes, as well as how general inspection rules for how the US and Russia will be able to verify their commitments, is also proving complex.
In addition to disarmament issues, Medvedev said that the US and Russia “have an extensive agenda that reflects other concerns. These involve interregional conflicts, efforts to overcome the international financial crisis, local conflicts and finally bilateral relations.”