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'Incremental Progress' on Nuclear Issues at U.S.-Russia Summit

Interviewee: Charles D. Ferguson, Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 6, 2009

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CFR's top arms control expert, Charles D. Ferguson, says despite a preliminary agreement between the United States and Russia to work toward reducing each country's strategic nuclear arsenal, "nothing revolutionary" was agreed to on arms control issues at the summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Both sides realize that "it's going to be very difficult to really achieve something that's far-reaching and produces really deep reductions in both sides' strategic nuclear arsenals by the end of the year," Ferguson says. In contrast to the arms control agreement made during the Bush administration, however, the Obama-Medvedev agreement is legally binding.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had an extended meeting at the Moscow summit and a fairly extended press conference to discuss the results of the talks, which dealt largely with the pending nuclear issues. What were your  impressions of what was accomplished on the arms control front?

It can be summed up by saying they've made incremental progress. There's nothing revolutionary here and there really were no surprises, but on the plus side there weren't any ugly surprises, or any steps backward. Both countries and both presidents are trying to pick up some forward momentum so that they can build on this current statement on missiles and warheads, which is rather modest but still contains some substance.

Can you go into more detail on the follow-up statement on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I)?

Both sides are very aware that it's going to be very difficult to really achieve something that's far-reaching and produces really deep reductions in both sides' strategic nuclear arsenals by the end of the year [the START I agreement expires in December]. Here in the United States, President Obama realizes he's going to face some significant questions in the U.S. Senate. Senator Richard Lugar [R-IN], a leading Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has said recently that if President Obama wants the U.S. Senate to consider a new START treaty he needs to submit something basically by September. If you wait much longer than that the Senate's not going to able to ratify this. You need a two-thirds vote to approve a treaty. This is going to be a litmus test issue for other arms control and nonproliferation issues that President Obama has on his agenda.

So President Obama and his team, they're smart in terms of how they're crafting this, in terms of just taking a baby step forward from the previous Bush administration's so-called Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) [also known as the Treaty of Moscow], signed in Moscow in 2002. So in essence, if you get into the details and you look at their agreed statement, it's saying that they've agreed to put new limits on strategic weapons delivery systems and strategic warheads accountable to those delivery systems. On the delivery systems side, they're talking about a range from 500 to 1,100 delivery system launchers that would be counted. That means submarine-launched  ballistic missiles, land-based bombers, and the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). And on the warhead limits, they're very modest from where we were with the Treaty of Moscow that was agreed to in 2002. The Treaty of Moscow had limits of 1,700 to 2,200 strategic warheads that would be deployed, and what that meant was kind of vague. Both sides now agree to reduce that to around 1,500 to 1,675 warheads. That's only a twenty-five warhead difference from what we had with the Treaty of Moscow, so in that sense it's rather modest. But what's important here is both sides agreed to have a legally binding treaty, in contrast to the Bush administration, which only had a very flexible, informal kind of treaty under the Treaty of Moscow in 2002.

"Both sides are very aware that it's going to be very difficult to really achieve something that's far-reaching and produces really deep reductions in both sides' strategic nuclear arsenals by the end of the year."

President Obama also announced that he was going to have a world nuclear summit in the United States next year, and that the Russians could have one the year after. What is all that about?

President Obama, during the presidential campaign, had as part of his major platform for nuclear security to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials by 2012. That's a very ambitious agenda. It's still not clear what's meant by "all vulnerable nuclear materials." One thing they need to do is figure out what are the terms of reference in dealing with this major agenda item. The president had a companion plank in his agenda, which was to convene all the countries that have these nuclear materials in a global security conference. He was hoping to do it within the first year of his term and I think they're going to just about get there. I've talked with people in the administration and they're planning something early next year.

What's interesting is that President Obama in the press conference said he envisioned subsequent conferences and he would like Russia to actually host the next one. So this was a way of pulling the Russians in as partners in this global endeavor to make sure we're more secure against the threat of nuclear terrorism. That's what this is really about. Both presidents pointed to two threats: states like Iran that may want nuclear weapons capabilities; and terrorists who may get their hands on vulnerable nuclear materials and actually try to make nuclear bombs.

The issue that got a lot of attention before this summit was the NATO agreement worked out primarily by the United States and Poland and the Czech Republic for a small number of anti-ballistic missile weapons to be put into Poland, with radars in the Czech Republic to defend against a possible missile attack from Iran. In fact there was some speculation the Russians wouldn't agree to any further cuts on START unless the United States agreed to shelve this plan. Now they've set up a ballistic missile commission to look into the question of  ballistic missile proliferation. Was this a way to get the guidelines for the future START agreement out without the Poland missile defenses interfering?

What they're doing here diplomatically is finding a way to kick the can down the road, not to keep rubbing dirt in this wound, to find a way for both sides to see if they can close this festering wound between the two countries. Russia's concerned that the U.S. missile defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic, and perhaps other parts of Europe, could be the foot in the door to much bigger missile defense systems in the future, and that a bigger-type system may pose a possible threat to Russia under scenarios where there are very deep reductions in the number of nuclear arms. Yet again this is why both presidents have only agreed to a very modest reduction from where we are right now in strategic arsenals.

And if you look at the statement on missile defense, President Medvedev emphasized the philosophical issue at stake here, that both sides agreed to, is a linkage between offensive and defensive weapons systems. That's an important statement because there is a linkage. This brings us back, some would say, to the good old days, or at least the old days of the Anti-Ballistic Missile [ABM] Treaty from 1972, which the United States pulled out from in 2002 because President Bush at that time wanted to pursue a national missile defense system and didn't want to be constrained by the ABM Treaty. So we have both sides saying that they recognize this linkage does exist, and that they need to address it if they want to make further progress in reducing their nuclear arms. And part of this commission is to study the missile threats. In particular they're going to look at the threat from Iran: Does Iran pose a ballistic missile threat now to Russia, the United States, or to Europe? Or will it pose such a threat some time in the future? What types of missile defense systems may we need to counter that type of threat if we need these at all?

Obama also made public at the press conference that the United States was now studying this Polish-Czech system internally, and the results would be known by the end of this summer and transmitted to the Russians. Medvedev seemed pleased by that statement. I guess he's hoping the review will kill the plan.

"What they're doing here diplomatically [on missile defense] is finding a way to kick the can down the road, not to keep rubbing dirt in this wound."

That's one of the options. President Obama made that clear even back in the presidential campaign that he wants to make sure that system is technically feasible, that it actually works. He also wants to take a hard look at what the actual threats are and how this would impinge upon his agenda to pursue nuclear disarmament. All those things are interlinked and President Obama very well understands that. That's one option: not to go ahead with the Polish and Czech proposed system. Another option is to have some type of cooperative agreement. The Russians have been offering radar systems in Azerbaijan and parts of southern Russia. The Russians have their own S300 missile defense system and the S400, so there might be a way of crafting a cooperative system. But the problem with that is, who would control it? Would it be the Americans, or the Russians, or some American-Russian team? Who would have his or her finger on the trigger of the missile interceptors? Who would make the executive decision to fire in the case of a missile launch?

On the atmospherics, all summits always have a kind of soft facade. I can't remember a summit where two sides sort of broke up in anger. Did you get any sense from watching the two men talking? They seemed to be very congenial.

They did, but there was a bit of an awkward moment that I noticed when Obama was making his opening statement on the issue of Georgia. He pointed out to President Medvedev that the United States believes in respecting Georgian territorial integrity. And there was a little bit of a tension in the room in that statement. But President Obama had to say it for domestic and international reasons. But other than that, it seemed very congenial.

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