Obama and Medvedev sign new START

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations met on May 18 to hold a hearing with Secretaries Clinton and Gates and Admiral Mullen on the new U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) Treaty. The three officials gave testimony and urged ratification saying the treaty will enhance U.S. security and aid nuclear non-proliferation efforts. In a near-herculean effort, the witnesses, over and over, sought to persuade lawmakers that divergent views with Russia on the key issues of missile defense should not be an obstacle to ratification, reiterating that nothing in New START will prevent the U.S. from deploying missile defenses.

Secretary Clinton, for example, stated that “nothing in the new treaty constrains our missile defense;” while Secretary Gates said, “there are no limits [for deploying missile defense] on us.” More than a couple members on the committee were skeptical, however.

At issue regarding the question of New START’s impact on U.S. missile defense plans is the legal standing of a Russian unilateral statement on missile defense issued by the Kremlin on its website at the time of signing which states: “[New START] can operate and be viable only if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile-defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively.” Also at issue is whether language in the preamble linking offensive and defensive weapons is legally binding and will restrict the U.S. from building missile defenses.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) raised concerns by saying that it is “troubling that each country has divergent views on missile defense.” Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) echoed this and said, “When you read the preamble, and when you read some of the language in it and most importantly, when you read the unilateral statement, we have irreconcilable differences.” He continued, “This treaty means something different to the Russians than it means to us when it comes to protecting our people with a defensive missile structure.” These concerns are not unwarranted, especially when you consider the growing missile threat from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.

When viewed together, it is clear that 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 future U.S. missile defense capabilities by threatening to withdraw from the treaty should the U.S. expand its current capabilities. And by outward appearances, the Russians appear to have succeeded.

The administration’s rejoinder—reiterated by Sec. Clinton and Gates during the hearing—is that none of this verbiage is legally binding, and that the U.S. Unilateral Statement expresses its intent to continue with its missile defense activities. Still, such Russian threats have had an impact on U.S. decision-making in the past:

  • The Obama administration abandoned plans to deploy long-range missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to remove an irritant in U.S.-Russian relations and enable NEW START negotiations; and
  • In a May 1, 1996 letter to Senator Nunn expressing his views on the Defend America Act of 1996, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili, argued that “efforts which suggest changes to or withdrawal from the ABM Treaty may jeopardize Russian ratification of START II and, as articulated in the Soviet Statement to the United States of 13 June 1991, could prompt Russia to withdraw from START I.”

After the cancellation of the “Third Site” long-range missile site in the Poland and Czech Republic, it is clear that U.S. policy will be colored by what the Russians say is destabilizing. It is also clear that U.S. policy will be to clearly limit missile defenses at any point that they can be perceived as upsetting the balance with Russia, as stated in the Department of Defense’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report.

During the hearing, Secretary Clinton acknowledged that the Preamble contains an explicit linkage between offense and defense weapons but said it “does not constrain our missile defense programs in any way.” Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) had a different take: “The Russians don’t appear to misunderstand what’s in this treaty, and I don’t have to read the preamble to you, but it’s very clear that we can develop defensive missile defense as long as it does not threaten their offensive capabilities” This was an important observation.

The Heritage Foundation has pointed out that the while the Preamble certainly contains an explicit linkage between offensive and defense weapons, the language relating to missile defense establishes a logic that works to restrain missile defense options.

Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.

The key phrase is more important as strategic arms are reduced. The language establishes a logic that missile defense capabilities must come down in coordination with reductions in offensive strategic weapons because otherwise defenses will call into question the “viability and effectiveness” of strategic offensive weapons. Otherwise, they will upset the strategic balance and the “balance of terror.” Or, in Putin’s parlance from last December, the U.S. may begin to feel “secure.”

Prior to the signature, the Administration asserted that there would be no reference to missile defense other than in the Preamble of the Treaty, and certainly no limitations.[1] However, Article V contains a limitation on the conversion of ICBM and SLBM launchers into launchers for missile defense interceptors and vice versa.

Absent from the discussion in the hearing was reference to the unsettling revelations made by Dimitri Simes, a prominent Russia expert and President of the Nixon Center. Simes published an article saying that senior Russian officials told him that high ranking Russians told him that during negotiations senior American officials conveyed to the Russian side that there was no reason to put more restrictive language on missile defense in the treaty. This is because the Obama Administration has no intention of moving forward with strategic missile defenses in Europe. In addition, Americans told the Russians that specific restraints in the treaty would only cause the Senate to block its ratification. Senior U.S. officials apparently confirmed this to Simes.

Even if these revelations are not true, the Russian leadership had a fairly well-defined game plan in negotiating the treaty and as Sergei Karagonov, Chairman of the Russian Council on Defense and Foreign Policy, put it, “In the course of the negotiations, Russia reached almost all of the objectives it could possibly set.” Moreover, as Senator DeMint, Corker, and Risch all pointed out, in a world with a growing missile threat to the United States it is absolutely critical that we develop the missile defense system needed to protect ourselves. Accordingly, the Senate must confirm that Russia did not win on the missile defense issue before it consents to ratification.

Co-authored by Owen Graham.