Dear Mr. Nuclear Fantasy

The New START is just one more step on the road to "nuclear zero," a dangerous goal disadvantageous to America. The Senate to the rescue?

The New START signed between Russia and the United States this past April is thought to be the foundation of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Moscow. According to the White House’s “reset” narrative, Russia and the United States have developed a real partnership. This, we are led to believe, is demonstrated not only by the signing of the New START, but also Russian support for UN sanctions on Iran, cancellation of the S-300 missile sales to the ayatollahs, and a transit agreement to move troops and supplies into Afghanistan through Russian territory and airspace. Russia’s moves on Iran policy are certainly a step in the right direction. But a closer look at the bilateral relationship reveals that the cost of cooperation has been high—and the concessions agreed to by the Obama administration have been far-reaching.

When it comes to the New START, Washington has agreed to limitations on its ballistic-missile-defense options (something the administration’s representatives vehemently deny); ambiguous language on rail-mobile ballistic missiles; vague limitations on conventional global-strike systems and a significant degradation of the START verification regime from 1991. All these measures limit U.S. defense options not vis-à-vis Russia, but North Korea, China, and in the future, Iran; and provide the Russian Federation’s Strategic Rocket Forces with unfair advantages.

Furthermore, the treaty’s preamble, the Russian unilateral statement on missile defense and remarks by senior Russian officials suggest an attempt by Russia to limit or constrain current and future U.S. missile-defense capabilities by threatening to withdraw from the treaty should the U.S. expand its missile defenses “qualitatively” or “quantitatively.” Apparently, it will be up to Russia to define these quantitative and/or qualitative criteria, forcing U.S. decision-makers to look to Moscow every time a significant missile defense decision has to be made.

In an eerie echo of the Reagan-Gorbachev debates on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) of the mid-1980s, the Russians are pushing for limits on U.S. missile-defense programs. Such constraints are so essential to Moscow—which is lagging behind technologically and does not want to spend tens of billions of dollars on a similar system amidst an expensive and controversial military reform—that it is threatening to withdraw from the treaty if these curbs are not met.

Certainly not everyone has gotten on board with the White House agenda, jeopardizing the White House’s ability to ensure advice and consent for New START by the Senate. The legislative history of the New START has been stormy already. And many within the Senate have been less than enthusiastic. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to recommend the treaty for advice and consent by the full Senate last September, it appended language about both the fact that the United States does not see the New START as imposing limits on missile-defense Prompt Global Strike systems, and that it covers rail-mobile ballistic missiles under the treaty’s limits.

Of course, these stipulations, which are contained in the resolution of ratification to New START, have made the Russians quite unhappy. To wit, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee, loyal to the Kremlin, on October 29 proposed to his committee that it reconsider its earlier position in favor of ratification.

Earlier this month, the Duma International Affairs Committee decided to delay consideration of the legislation that would authorize the ratification of New START by the full Duma. According to leading Russian analysts, this action, taken without a formal vote, does not amount to an annulment of the earlier treaty endorsement by the committee. However, the equivalent on the U.S. side would be the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommending that the full Senate suspend action. The Duma committee’s recommendation to delay ratification necessarily raises several questions for the U.S. Senate that the Obama administration must answer before it considers the treaty.

Says Kosachev: “First, it is specially emphasized that [the U.S. senators understand that] strategic-range non-nuclear weapon systems do not fall under the treaty, but it is virtually impossible to tell whether a missile that has already been launched is carrying a nuclear or non-nuclear warhead or not.”

The second understanding presumes that “the Americans are trying to apply the New START Treaty to rail-mobile ICBMs in case they are built,” Kosachev said. That is correct. According to the Department of State’s Fact Sheet on Rail-Mobile Launchers of ICBMs and their Missiles, both rail-mobile missiles and launchers would be subject to the treaty should a Party to the treaty develop and deploy them.