Working with Moscow

Washington shouldn’t overstate the importance of the arms-treaty. We haven’t yet reached the hard part.

The nuclear-arms reduction agreement reached by the United States and Russia is important, but should not be overstated. While failure to sign a new treaty and get it ratified in both countries could come at a cost, success is useful primarily as a prerequisite to accomplishing more significant American foreign-policy goals. Those goals, and therefore the treaty's real impact, still lie ahead.

Because the Obama administration turned arms control into a centerpiece of its strategy for a "reset" with Moscow, based on the now clearly incorrect assumption that it would be relatively easy to do, inability to ink a deal could have weakened much of Washington's wider effort to improve U.S.-Russian relations. This could have in turn led to deteriorating cooperation on other issues. The effect on discussions of possible sanctions on Iran, and American supply flights to Afghanistan across Russian territory, could have been serious.

If the treaty goes down in the Senate or the Russian State Duma-or isn't submitted for ratification because the votes aren't there-it might still inflict damage on ties between Washington and Moscow. After this week's health-care showdown, it seems dangerous to make assumptions about how Senate Republicans might vote. Another issue is what Republicans may demand in exchange for their support, what the administration is prepared to offer, and how Russia could react to both. An Obama administration commitment to rearm Georgia to win needed Republican votes would have considerable negative consequences in Moscow that would likely outweigh any positive sentiment generated by the arms agreement.

Still, momentum from the April 8 signing ceremony in Prague can contribute usefully to talks at the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington the following week, where the United States and others will try to find new ways to tighten the global non-proliferation regime. The treaty can have a similar positive impact on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York in May. Given growing global interest in nuclear power, and Iran's illustration of just how muddy the line between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons can be, this is a critical issue for American national security in the twenty-first century. By signing a new arms reduction treaty with Russia, the United States can legitimately say that it is not only asking others to do more, but doing more itself too. Nevertheless, extracting meaningful commitments from other nations with different interests and goals will not be easy.

The agreement can impart greater forward momentum to the U.S.-Russian relationship as well, but this is much more complex for three reasons.

The first is Russian politics. The agreement is a big success for Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, but if it becomes too public a success and appears to challenge Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's authority, it could backfire for Medvedev. And for the United States, if the Obama administration is seen to be boosting Medvedev at Putin's expense. The nuclear-arms deal likewise seals in the minds of the Russian people that the "reset" is Medvedev's project. If the "reset" stalls, or if Russians think Moscow is getting a bad deal in U.S.-Russian relations (a view many will be predisposed to take), Medvedev could pay the price.

The second has to do with the lingering differences that the new treaty has papered over without resolving, primarily related to American missile-defense plans. The United States and Russia have apparently found a mutually-acceptable formula to address this in the agreement, but this formula seems to hinge on presentation of the link between offensive and defensive systems in a way that is subject to different interpretations in the two capitals. Rest assured that both sides will indeed interpret it differently, meaning that any further progress on these issues will be difficult.

The third group of complexities derives from the fundamental problem of U.S.-Russian relations: our interests, priorities and preferences on a broad range of issues are not identical. American and Russian vital interests are no longer inherently in conflict, as they were during the Cold War, but it takes considerable effort to bridge them and to move beyond old patterns of thinking in both countries. From Iran to European security and energy to Afghanistan to foreign investment in Russia, the administration has a great deal of work ahead if it is genuinely to succeed in changing the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Signing a new arms reduction agreement may help the United States and may contribute to U.S.-Russian relations, but the administration would do well not to overstate the achievement either in the media or in its internal deliberations. We haven't yet reached the hard part.


Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.