One, Two, Three, Go!

The New START arms-control pact between Washington and Moscow represents an agenda of the past. Civilian nuclear cooperation is where it's at.

As the Obama administration’s ability to win Senate ratification of the New START Treaty during the lame-duck session appears increasingly in doubt, the much-less-visible U.S.-Russian agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation is taking on greater importance. Also known as the U.S.-Russian 123 agreement, in reference to a section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the civilian nuclear deal could enter into effect after fourteen working days in the session with no further action—meaning no vote—required on Capitol Hill. Conversely, delaying the 123 agreement until the 112th Congress could be more damaging than many may believe—and possibly more damaging than delaying ratification of New START.

Why does the 123 agreement matter?

Perhaps ironically for an agreement that aims to expand the nuclear trade, it could actually do a great deal to advance American nonproliferation goals vis-à-vis Moscow. Central to this is the fact that Russia’s government expects its civilian nuclear sector to earn $2–3 billion through the agreement once American and Russian firms negotiate the projects it would permit. These funds will help to support the Russian nuclear complex, not unlike the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, bringing revenue to enterprises and individuals who might otherwise seek it in less desirable places.

This revenue could also create an additional incentive for Russia’s nuclear complex to advocate engagement with the United States, strengthening the country’s still-weak economic constituency favorable to America. Likewise, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—responsible for the country’s economy—certainly seems more interested in the 123 agreement than New START, and success with it could somewhat diminish the pragmatic Putin’s skepticism about the “reset”—not a minor hurdle for U.S. policy toward Russia. Getting the greatest benefit from the 123 agreement will, of course, require following up with commercial contracts between American and Russian companies, something the Obama administration could try to facilitate if it has not already.

Particularly important in the political context is the fact that many Russians view the 123 agreement as direct compensation for President Medvedev’s decree banning the sale of S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran. Tehran was to pay $800 million for the missiles, which Russia has forgone in support of U.S. (and Israeli) preferences. As a result, failing to bring the 123 agreement into force this year—requiring its resubmission to the next Congress, with the legislative clock restarted and entry into force likely pushed into the second half of 2011, and, therefore, quite uncertain from Moscow’s perspective—could have a serious impact on Russia’s willingness to trust the Obama administration and greater practical consequences than a delay in New START, which could be taken up sooner by the next Senate if needed. It is unlikely that Russia would be willing to do anything further on Iran if Russian officials believe the United States did not hold up its end of this informal quid pro quo.

More generally, what happens to the 123 agreement may have more influence on Moscow’s future cooperation on Iran than what happens to New START. This is all the more so because a number of Russian military officers would not mind seeing the arms treaty remain in limbo so that they could retain greater freedom of action in the nuclear sphere (a view of arms control similar to some officials in the previous American administration). The Russian constituency for New START is limited.

More fundamentally, despite its continuing importance, the U.S.-Russian arms-control agenda embodied in New START is an agenda of the past. This is a reflection of the reality that with the end of the Cold War, so few people in either country fear a U.S.-Russian nuclear war that arms control is no longer a matter of real popular concern. At the same time, in the absence of both a perceived threat and significant public interest, arms control is becoming more politicized than it was during the Cold War, when despite revisionist nostalgia it was hardly separated from politics (see the Nixon administration, for example).

While New START is not without flaws, on balance it merits ratification. And if the administration can reach an understanding with a sufficient number of Senate Republicans during the lame-duck session, it is so much the better. But the less likely this looks, the more important the 123 agreement will be as a shock absorber for U.S.-Russian relations. To make it a reality, the administration should work aggressively with congressional leaders to ensure that there are fourteen days on its lame-duck calendar.