Last March, when the Obama administration's outreach to Russia was still in its embryonic stages, America's chief diplomat made a major gaffe. Meeting in Geneva with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented him with a symbolic red button, meant to signify the "reset" of bilateral relations publicly being advocated by the new president. But the button was mislabeled; in a glaring error of translation, it boasted the label peregruzka (overload), rather than perezagruzka (reload). Both Clinton and Lavrov were quick to laugh off the incident, but a serious message had inadvertently been sent: that the Obama administration was woefully out of its depth on foreign affairs.
That unfortunate episode sprang to mind last month, when Presidents Obama and Medvedev announced that work on a successor to the now-defunct 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) had been concluded. Details of the deal--predictably named "New START"--have now been made public, and they confirm that the latest exercise in U.S.-Russian arms control is flawed on at least three fronts.
First, the new agreement fails to cover a key element of Russia's arsenal: "battlefield" nukes. The moniker describes a range of weapons--from gravity bombs to short-range missiles--intended for use against military forces (rather than civilian populations). These devices, while lower yield than traditional nuclear weapons, are still incredibly destructive, with the most potent several times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
America itself is currently estimated to have upward of a thousand of these weapons, with approximately 200 deployed in Europe. Russia, however, has many more; between 2,000 and 6,000, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Not surprisingly, Moscow has long lobbied to keep these weapons off the nuclear negotiating table. And the Obama administration has obliged: "New START" commits both countries to steep drawdowns of "strategic arms" such as missiles and warheads over the next seven years, while remaining silent on the subject of their tactical counterparts. The result is a lopsided treaty that does nothing to address a key element of Russia's Soviet-era arsenal or the looming post-Cold War danger of loose nukes.
Second, the new deal prejudices the Administration against future investments in precisely the types of defenses needed to protect against nuclear weapons. It is useful to remember that Russia, together with China, has long lobbied for limits--either overt or implicit--on America's missile defense plans. During its term in office, the Bush administration resisted those impulses, preferring to maintain the right to shape its response to emerging threats as it saw fit.
Team Obama has taken a different tack. During the negotiating process, the White House reassured skeptics that the new pact would not include any sort of quid pro quo on missile defense. But the actual text of the treaty says otherwise, restricting the U.S. from using existing missile launchers for defense duties in the event of that it must move quickly to counter unforeseen threats.
Russian officials, meanwhile, have made clear that they view any further U.S. movement on missile defense as hostile. New START "can operate and be viable only if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively," the Kremlin outlined in an official statement. All of which makes abundantly clear that, for all of the Administration's rhetoric to the contrary, missile defense has become a casualty of our new strategic understanding with Russia.
Most significantly, the agreement exacerbates the already-shifting strategic balance between Russia and the U.S.--and not in America's favor. That is because, since at least the start of Vladimir Putin's presidency, Russia has been engaged in a major modernization of its strategic arsenal. This process, still ongoing, involves upgrades to every leg of Russia's strategic triad: its bombers, its submarines and its long-range missiles.
Russia is now said to be adding, on average, two new strategic bombers to its air force every three years, steadily expanding its operational capabilities in the "post-Soviet space" and (potentially) Europe. Simultaneously, the Kremlin is decommissioning its Soviet-era submarines, a process expected to conclude this year, and investing heavily in new sea-launched offensive weapons like the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile. Moscow is also making a serious effort to strengthen its long-range missile arsenal, expanding its contingent of silo-based ICBMs and outfitting others with multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads. As a result of these investments, Russia is now estimated to have the world's most modern nuclear weapons capabilities.
America, on the other hand, does not. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has been on what some scholars have termed a "nuclear holiday," allowing its strategic arsenal to age and atrophy. The new nuclear deal just hammered out between Moscow and Washington, which institutes steep cuts in existing U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons without imposing corresponding constraints on Russian modernization, will only exacerbate this imbalance.
None of which seems to matter very much to the White House. Perhaps that is because in the eyes of the Obama administration's arms controllers the new deal with Russia is simply a milestone on the way to a larger goal: America's nuclear disarmament.
After all, President Obama and his principals long have embraced the idea of "a world without nuclear weapons," driven by the notion that, if only Washington led the way in nuclear abolition, other countries would be sure to follow suit. Never mind that a compelling argument can be made that exactly the opposite would happen; as America's arsenal constricts, those seeking an advantage against it are likely to redouble their investments in technologies that can outmatch U.S. capabilities and defeat American defenses. Team Obama still seems determined to take America out of the nuclear superiority business.
The new U.S.-Russian agreement gets the ball rolling in that direction, providing Moscow with a vehicle by which to gradually secure the strategic advantage over Washington. That it has been so enthusiastically embraced by the White House can only serve to confirm the Kremlin's suspicions about American "overload."