The Moscow summit: A positive first step

By Pavel Podvig | July 22, 2009

The U.S.-Russian summit held earlier this month in Moscow marked a good beginning for the relationship between the Obama and Medvedev administrations. While the two presidents made promising progress on the most urgent issue on the table–replacing START–it wasn’t the only important agreement they made.

In fact, the arms control agreement was rather modest. The United States and Russia agreed that the new treaty will reduce the number of operationally deployed warheads on each side to 1,500-1,675 and the number of launchers on each side to 500-1,100. Since the current warhead limit set by the Moscow Treaty is 1,700-2,200, this planned reduction hardly looks daring, especially if we consider that to get to these numbers, the sides must accept SORT’s “operationally deployed warheads” count, which is far less restrictive than the START count.

The most promising development at the Moscow summit was the establishment of a bilateral presidential commission that will allow the two governments to discuss a wide range of issues and could create an infrastructure for continuous close contact between the two bureaucracies.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that the START counting rules will be entirely pushed aside, as it looks like they still will be used to count delivery systems. The numbers in the Moscow joint understanding indicate that there are significant differences in the number of launchers that each side wants to see. Russia is pushing for the lower number–it has some 600 launchers today and would like to see the U.S. number (about 1,200) reduced. The United States, on the other hand, is reluctant to eliminate its delivery systems; it would rather convert them for conventional missions or keep them in reserve (e.g. some of its intercontinental ballistic missile silos).

One possible solution is to relax the counting rules and not count some U.S. systems, such as four Trident submarines Washington converted into cruise missile launchers. That would help push the numbers down, but I believe it would come at a price of losing the accountability START established. If the United States and Russia want to undertake real force reductions, they should do so by actually eliminating weapon systems, not by changing the definitions. So, a better way of dealing with the gap in the numbers would be to keep the START rules for delivery systems–even if that means the ceiling on strategic launchers in the new treaty will be relatively high.

Missile defense also drew significant attention during the talks. Russia has strenuously opposed the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe for some time and has tried to force Washington to abandon it as part of the arms control talks. Thus, the Obama administration found itself in an awkward position: It has been skeptical about the plan, but it can’t afford to look as though it yielded to Russian pressure on the issue. Not surprisingly then, the documents signed in Moscow were carefully worded to make sure that both sides could claim victory. While there isn’t a direct link between missile defense and offensives force reductions, the sides agreed to discuss the issue further at a later date. More importantly, the emphasis in the joint statement on missile defense is on dialogue and cooperation in determining the threats such a system would combat. If done properly, this cooperation could help make missile defense much less contentious.

The summit yielded other tangible benefits as well. By allowing the United States to use Russian airspace to support its operations in Afghanistan, Moscow demonstrated that it’s open to cooperation. The joint statement on nuclear cooperation also is an important document that will help expand efforts to secure nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere. But the most promising development is the establishment of a bilateral presidential commission that will allow the two governments to discuss a wide range of issues and could create an infrastructure for continuous close contact between the two bureaucracies.

If the commission realizes its potential, it will be the most important result of the Moscow meeting. As we witnessed during the Bush years, it’s a lack of dialogue that makes relationships deteriorate rather than any specific disagreement. And while the dialogue on nuclear disarmament and missile defense is important, the U.S.-Russian relationship should be much broader than nuclear warhead bean-counting. Nuclear energy, counterterrorism, cooperation in space, and emergency response are issues that Washington and Moscow should concentrate on. Better still, if they get this right, coming to an agreement on nuclear reductions and missile defense will be much easier.

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