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Russia's Arms Control Ripples

Author: Greg Bruno
August 26, 2008

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Reverberations from Russia's conflict with Georgia extend in many directions, highlighting the extent of Russian power in its own region and beyond (BBC). In the event of a further chilling of ties with the West, Russia's soft-power sticks (NYT) include everything from potential manipulation of energy supplies to limiting NATO security forces' access to Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia. Western states, for their part, have signaled potential trade moves against Russia and the end to "business as usual." But one potential casualty that causes special worry for some analysts is the suspension of cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and other arms control efforts.

The Wall Street Journal reported on August 23, the Bush administration's "landmark nuclear-cooperation agreement" with Moscow could be derailed following Russia's moves in Georgia. The deal, which the White House had hoped to finalize in September, aimed to increase U.S.-Russia cooperation on peaceful nuclear technology. But as one U.S. official told the paper, nuclear deals are "no longer business as usual." The Financial Times reported on August 25 that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to call on President Bush to recall the civil nuclear deal with Russia from Congress. "At this point, it's dead," a congressional staffer told the paper.

Pressure to disband or modify arms control agreements and treaties is not new. Russia, which possesses nearly half (CDI) of the world's nuclear weapons, had already suspended (BBC) full participation in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty to protest U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. (U.S. and Polish officials finalized a missile shield deal in mid-August, angering Russia and leading to reports of a potential arms sale between Russia and Syria). Moscow has also long threatened a pullout (VOA) from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, inked by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1987 to prohibit development and deployment of some ballistic missiles.

Washington, too, has sought changes to arms accords it has viewed as outdated and cumbersome. The Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, announcing it needed a better framework to protect the United States from new kinds of missile threats. Russia called the move a mistake. According to Stratfor, an intelligence analysis website, the Bush administration has also ignored Moscow's calls for an extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in 2009.

At the same time, Russia and the United States have a recent history of cooperating on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons reduction. Since 1991, as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the U.S. government has spent over $4.4 billion to dismantle and destroy weapons inside the former Soviet Union. Proliferation experts Alexei Arbatov and Rose Gottemoeller, writing in Arms Control Today, say both sides "have ample will" to return to the negotiating table once President Bush leaves office. But some analysts say disputes over Georgia threaten to hamper larger issues like nonproliferation. CFR President Richard N. Haass, writing in Newsweek, says the conflict in Georgia could leave negotiations over global nuclear stockpiles and other thorny issues unresolved.

Just how much leverage the West has to influence Moscow is not clear. Andrew Wilson, a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says the relevance of the European Union—which has emerged at the forefront of diplomacy on the South Ossetia dispute—will be tested by the outcome (Reuters). French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called an emergency summit (France24) of the bloc on September 1 to discuss relations with Russia. Meanwhile, the Bush administration next week will make its highest profile visit yet to Georgia, sending Vice President Dick Cheney, as part of a trip that includes stops in the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Ukraine. F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on Eastern Europe at the RAND Corporation, says the diplomatic surge is necessary to prevent further destabilization. "It's very important that this spiral of action and reaction not be allowed to get out of hand," Larrabee says.

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