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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Obama Intervened Frequently in Arms Control Talks

U.S. President Barack Obama played a key role in hammering out a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, speaking with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 14 occasions since last spring to help resolve impasses that arose between negotiators meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the New York Times reported Friday.

(Mar. 29) - A U.S. Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. U.S. President Barack Obama played a key role in resolving disagreements with Russia over a new strategic arms control treaty finalized last week (Getty Images).

When Obama and Medvedev agreed last April to negotiate the new treaty, the deal was considered a relatively limited step toward achieving more ambitious arms control goals. The agreement would include moderate arms reductions while renewing and possibly revamping systems for monitoring compliance with the replacement pact.

The leaders last week approved the final terms of the pact, which would require the United States and Russia to both lower their respective strategic arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads. Each nation's fielded nuclear delivery vehicles -- missiles, submarines and bombers -- would be capped at 700, with another 100 allowed in reserve. The deal must be ratified by the U.S. and Russian legislatures to enter force.

Despite involvement by experienced arms control specialists from the two nations, Moscow frequently forced the U.S. president's direct involvement in addressing major disagreements in the talks, according to the Times.

“When President Obama’s domestic positions were weakened in recent months and he was completely consumed in his crusade for health care reform, making all other issues irrelevant, it is surprising how much attention he kept on START. Even being 24-hours-a-day busy on health reform, he had a 25th hour for START,” said Sergei Rogov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies.

“It’s been much harder than we anticipated,” said one high-level Obama administration official linked to the negotiations. "We thought it would be relatively easy."

“He has been personally involved in this in a way I don’t think other presidents have been,” said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

U.S. negotiators sought early in the talks to publicly declare arsenal reduction targets, but their Russian counterparts opposed announcing specific goals for the treaty. When Obama met with Medvedev last July, though, the leaders settled on cutting their nations' strategic arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 deployed nuclear warheads and their delivery systems to between 700 and 800 each.

Medvedev sought to limit each side's nuclear delivery vehicles as much as possible; Obama stood his ground, though, expressing concern that radical reductions could force the United States to abandon either its land-, air- or sea-based nuclear weapons.

Negotiations revolved around several other points of contention: formulating new monitoring terms that Moscow could consider equitable, provisions for sharing missile test flight data, and whether to link nuclear reductions to limitations on a planned U.S. missile shield in Europe. Russia long refused to budge on its positions, wagering that Obama would offer concessions in order to close the deal before his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance ceremony in December.

Obama and Medvedev then appeared to make significant progress while meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a team of senior Obama administration officials traveled to Moscow in January to address lingering areas of disagreement.

"How'd we do, guys?" Obama asked after the meeting. One of the officials answered: "We're done, sir."

“We thought we had all the major things agreed on,” one adviser to the U.S. president later reflected.

In a February telephone call with Obama, though, Medvedev refused to budge on the missile defense issue. The disagreement had re-emerged after Russian negotiators demanded a U.S. pledge not to further alter its plans for the missile shield and Romania announced its intention to host U.S. interceptors on its territory.

“Dmitry, we agreed,” advisers quoted Obama as saying in the conversation. “We can’t do this. If it means we’re going to walk away from this treaty and not get it done, so be it. But we’re not going to go down this path."

After the call, Obama was angrier than some of his staffers had ever seen him, the Times reported.

Russian leaders "believed Obama could be put under pressure and concessions could be extracted from him. He needed the treaty more than the Russians in the short term," said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Moscow finally relented, agreeing to a U.S. proposal for each side to issue a nonbinding statement on the missile defense issue. The administration said the deal involves no restrictions on missile defense activities.

Medvedev spoke with Obama again by telephone on March 13, and the sides prepared their preliminary statements last Tuesday (Peter Baker, New York Times I, March 26).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the deal represented "real progress" in the two nations' relations, but he warned that Moscow reserved the right to withdraw from the treaty if it later deemed U.S. missile defenses to undermine Russia's strategic security.

The treaty was “neither a Russian gift to America nor an American gift to Russia,” said Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council's foreign affairs committee.

He admitted that Moscow took a reserved tone in announcing the deal. “We are on the edge of signing a treaty, so why make noise? I mean, speaking in colloquial language, let us drink champagne when we accomplish the task,” he said.

The deal “will eliminate concerns on both sides and is fully in line with the security interests of Russia,” Russian General Staff chief Gen. Nikolai Makarov said. Opposition parties lack the strength in Russia to prevent the new treaty from being ratified, he added.

“The treaty will be criticized by a number of people -- people who are connected to the military, and political experts who will say it is a fig leaf which allows Russia to save face, but does not allow Russia to ask anything of the U.S., at least anything of substance,” said Aleksei Pushkov, who hosts the political talk show “Post-Scriptum.”

“Should we have signed a treaty which does not give us any kind of serious guarantee?” he asked. “This is something which will be debated” (Ellen Barry, New York Times II, March 26).

The new treaty might only reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons by 100 or 200 from requirements imposed by earlier arms control agreements, said Hans Kristensen, head of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. The deal would eliminate 100-200 U.S. nuclear delivery vehicles, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

Specific arsenal cutbacks were not yet decided, one White House official noted.

Additional reductions would face Russia military opposition, warned Alexander Konovalov, head of the Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "It's simply fear," he said. "The military world is very conservative, and it is difficult to change their way of thinking" (Sheridan/Shear, Washington Post, March 27).

A "vast majority" of U.S. senators would support ratification of the new treaty, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an Associated Press report.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen added: "Through the trust it engenders, the cuts it requires and the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States. I am as confident in its success as I am in its safeguards" (Robert Burns, Associated Press I/Google News, March 27).

One former Russian general called the deal "a fairly even compromise," Agence France-Presse reported.

"There could not have been any limits on missile defense in the treaty, because it is a treaty on strategic arms and not on missile defense," said Vladimir Dvorkin, now an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for International Security. "The agreement is balanced and reflects the interests of both Russia and the United States," he said (Agence France-Presse/, March 27).

“The larger meaning [of the treaty] is the delegitimization of nuclear weapons,” Partnership for Global Security head Kenneth Luongo told the Times. “Obama will be able to go [to upcoming nuclear security meetings], and Medvedev as well, and say, ‘Here’s what we did on disarmament. Now we need to get serious about nuclear terrorism and nuclear materials.’ ”

Another analyst, though, criticized the idea that the new treaty "is somehow great news or a breakthrough.”

“What did we get out of the deal?” GeoStrategic Analysis head Peter Huessy asked. “Nothing that I can see, and I have been doing nuclear stuff, including arms control, since 1981.”

The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty eliminated twice the number of warheads as the latest deal, Huessy noted (Peter Baker, New York Times III, March 26).

Lavrov and others said the treaty should not be the final word on U.S.-Russian nuclear cuts.

"I am convinced that negotiations on further progress in nuclear arms reduction will continue. But this conversation can only be conducted in the context of the general strategic situation, in the context of general disarmament tasks," according to Moscow's top diplomat.

The "starting point" should be pulling nuclear weapons from foreign countries, he said. The United States is believed to keep roughly 200 tactical nuclear weapons in several European states (RIA Novosti/, March 29).

"We strongly endorse the goals of this treaty, and we hope that after careful and expeditious review that both the United States Senate and the Russian Federal Assembly will be able to ratify the treaty. We also urge the two governments to begin planning now for even more substantial reductions, including tactical nuclear weapons," stated former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn, who have helped press discussion of global nuclear disarmament in recent years (Nuclear Threat Initiative release, March 26).

One senior Republican in the House of Representatives argued against the pact.

“This is neither the right deal, nor the right time. One can only hope that this deal was not shaped by a naive motive of appeasing Russia in the hope that it will become a responsible member of the world community," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a prepared statement.

“The Congress was largely kept in the dark until now. But make no mistake, we will carefully scrutinize the terms of this agreement to be sure that our missile defenses will not be eroded or neglected in any way," she said.

It would be up to the Senate to ratify the agreement (U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee release, March 26).