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After New START, Old Tensions

Interviewee: Micah Zenko, CFR Fellow for Conflict Prevention, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR
January 26, 2011

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Russia's parliament ratified the New START treaty, which was signed last April and ratified by the U.S. Senate last month. It is unlikely any further accords will be negotiated until after the 2012 presidential elections in both countries, says CFR nuclear expert Micah Zenko. The Russians he spoke with on a recent trip to Moscow are anxious about future U.S.-Russia relations if President Barack Obama is not reelected, and U.S. officials are uneasy that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who handpicked current President Dmitry Medvedev, might decide to run again for the presidency. Russians are concerned that they have no viable missile defense as well as about the superiority of NATO conventional forces. The United States is worried about Russia's numerical superiority in tactical nuclear weapons, which Zenko believes Russians want to retain as a potential force against China. Regarding the recent terrorist attack on the main airport in Moscow, Zenko says "security was remarkably poor" throughout the airport and Russians are very worried about terrorist threats from the south.

You were recently in Moscow at Domodedovo. What's the security like there?

The security was remarkably poor at all stages, from picking up the baggage to ticket counters to the drop-off from taxis. There are a lot of people milling around trying to pick people up for taxis. There are a lot of people trying to sell things. There was no search of baggage. We didn't see any security personnel or dogs. In fact, I was surprised by the lack of security throughout Moscow. You do see some armed police and metro police force in certain key parts of the metro station and on the streets. But for the most part, you don't see much security. There was very little private security as well.

All the assumptions are that the attack was staged by a Muslim group, probably Chechens from the Northern Caucasus. How do Russians feel about these terrorist attacks--the airport attack was not the first in Moscow?

The threats from the south, which are broadly defined, are raised constantly when you talk to Russian national security and military experts. The threats include Islamic fundamentalism out of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and the very specific issue of the Chechen rebels.

People are very happy that the Russian "reset" has led to a greater confidence and trust. So that's a positive. The question then becomes, once both sides have done their homework on what's next, what can be done?

You were in Moscow primarily to talk with nuclear experts. Now that the New START treaty was ratified by both houses of the Russian parliament, what are the Russians interested in pursuing next?

Russia has several concerns. The first deals with its own military. Russia has no missile defense system to speak of. They talk about having one by 2020. And they're consolidating early-warning, space, and air defense systems into one strategic command. But they're very unlikely to do so. The second concern is to modernize the existing nuclear forces, both strategic and tactical. They're promising, if you read President Dmitry Medvedev's state of the union speech at the end of November, massive investments. The defense budget was increased by almost $10 billion for this year. [Another concern] deals with the United States. They're greatly concerned about the tactical nuclear weapons question specifically. They perceive their tactical nuclear weapons--which they have a great superiority in numbers--as necessary to deal with NATO's overwhelming superiority in conventional warfare.

NATO has an overwhelming superiority of conventional forces?

NATO has for a long time. There is the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which was supposed to deal with offensive conventional weapons. But Russia suspended its participation in the CFE Treaty in December 2007.

What is the CFE?

It has very strict inspection provisions which limit offensive systems. It limits the amount of planes and the forces on NATO borders. Russia says, "Look, as long as there's this disparity, we need our nuclear weapons." So the issue is: How do you deal with CFE? You might have to rethink CFE. And then the Russians in particular want the United States to withdraw the remaining 250 nuclear weapons that we keep in five places in NATO countries.

These are tactical nuclear weapons?

Yes.

Are they concerned about the American plans for nuclear missile defense?

No. America has thirty interceptors, twenty-four in Alaska and six in California. They are directed against North Korea. What the Russians are concerned about is the project the Obama administration unveiled in September 2009 for Western Europe. The United States wants to put a missile defense shield over all of Europe, in four stages--2011, 2015, 2018, and 2020. U.S. officials say this in no way can threaten Russia's ICBM force, because the missiles aren't fast enough to ever shoot [down] a Russian ICBM going over the North Pole.

This is aimed at a potential Iranian missile force?

Primarily Iran, although Iran is not mentioned specifically. What Russia is particularly worried about is the 2018 and 2020 systems. Initially, it's just U.S. naval ships in the Mediterranean. But then it will be ground-based systems in Romania and then Poland. Russia is very worried what that will do to its secure, second-strike capabilities. If it puts Russia's secure, second-strike capability at risk, everything else is off the table.

Explain the second-strike capability?

Russian ICBMs need to be able to launch and not be destroyed on the ground before they could be hit by an American first strike, whether by ICBMs or by SLBMs (submarine-launched missiles) or by conventional weapons. They have to be secure in the ability to get off the ground before they can be hit by American weapons. And they have to be secure that they can't be intercepted on the flight over the poles before they hit American territory. Americans have told Russian technical experts that their missile system is in no way at threat. Russia's technical experts generally understand this. But political officials just don't buy it.

Political officials think we're building up defense so that we can hit them first and block their retaliation?

Hit them first, disable them, and block their retaliation.

So what happens now that New Start is ratified?

They've been dealing with numbers and verification provisions and inspections, and so there's an exhaustion on both sides. People are very happy that the Russian "reset" has led to a greater confidence and trust. So that's a positive. The question then becomes, once both sides have done their homework on what's next, what can be done?

There are two major things. The first is missile defense. Through what's called the NATO-Russia Missile Council in Brussels and through a bilateral working group with the U.S. and Russian officials and experts, they're coming up with joint threat assessments to try and understand: What is the ballistic missile threat to Russia? To Europe? To the United States? How might the United States and Russia share early-warning data? Share radars? And share sensors in some coordinated way to deal with that threat? The tricky issue is the missile interceptors. Medvedev proposed what's called a two-button system, or zones of defense, where Russia would protect its territory with a missile defense system and then America and NATO would protect their territory. This is unlikely to ever work. Just think about the logistical problems. Plus, there's the small issue that Russia doesn't have a missile defense. So there needs to be some understanding with Russia on missile defense that does not upset Senate Republicans.

Is the U.S. Congress really pressing to go ahead with missile defense?

They're not pressing ahead with anything that threatens Russia in the near term. They just don't want any constraints at all on U.S. missile defense. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen have gone before the Senate and said there are no constraints on the plans and policies, but whether Senate Republicans believe that is not clear.

The other big issue is tactical nuclear weapons. If you saw the last week of debate in the U.S. Senate, the big issue that Republicans brought up over and over again is the vast disparity in Russian tactical nuclear weapons and U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. The United States has somewhere between four hundred deployed and four hundred reserve tactical weapons. Russia is believed to have 3,800 deployed and 2,000 in reserve.

They have very many more. But there's great misunderstanding about where they're deployed, how operationally capable they are. What is the intent of them? So when I was in Moscow I asked everybody I met, every Russian, "Why do you need tactical nuclear weapons?" And everyone had a radically different answer, but the answer they won't give unless you press them on it is China. The United States cares if they're deployed in Western Russia. Then they threaten U.S. NATO allies in Eastern Europe. So the goal is to get these out of Western Europe. Put them in central permanent storage where they're very secure. But Russia wants to keep these, because they worry very much about China. But if you read Russian National Security strategy and military documents, they never mention the word China.

The Russians worry if Obama's gone, what will the future in U.S.-Russian relations be? And Americans worry the same thing if Medvedev's gone.

Could these missiles be used against China?

Yes. They would have to be redeployed. They'd be put on a train. They'd be attached to naval systems.

The last time the Russians and Chinese fought was back in 1970 or so.

Yes, the last time they fought was over the Yalu River. But that's why they want third-party involvement in the next round of [nuclear disarmament talks with the United States].

They want China in the talks?

They want China, in particular. But they're not going to get China. The Chinese have no interest in engaging in any discussion about their nuclear weapons. Those are the two main issues: missile defense and tactical nukes. I don't predict anything will happen before 2012. The U.S. election cycle almost forbids anything going in front of the Senate in an election year. And there's a great uncertainty about who will run for president in Russia at this point. It could be Medvedev seeking a second term, but it could be [former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. Right now, the Russian president serves a four-year term but in 2012, the Russian presidency will be extended to a six-year term. And U.S. officials very badly want Medvedev, because the relationship with him is so much easier to deal with. But the Russians kept saying, "What happens if Sarah Palin's elected president? She likes guns. She likes bombs. She won't be friendly."

So they worry if Obama's gone, what will the future in U.S.-Russian relations be? And Americans worry the same thing if Medvedev's gone.

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