A Cold History Puts a Freeze on New Talks

By Elizabeth Pond

The North Korean rocket launch and Kim Jong-un's repeat of his dad’s dance of the seven veils in nuclear negotiations may have monopolized the headlines this week, but the occasion that made the Korean peninsula the center of the universe was actually the second Nuclear Security Summit held in South Korea.

Originally, this week's follow-up to President Barack Obama's 2010 launch of a campaign to guard global fissile materials against theft by terrorists or sale to proliferators was supposed to add momentum to America's nuclear "reset" to improve sour relations with Russia. Obama's hope was that the two big nuclear powers would find a common interest, not only in jointly reducing their own arsenals, but also in securing all nations' fissile stocks on the way to a world free of nuclear weapons.

Obama's hopes have been dashed, however, in the two years since that first Washington summit to safeguard nuclear materials. The bilateral reset lost its dynamic after the flagship "New START" Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty curtailed American and Russian nuclear weapons modestly in 2010. The issue of fissile control and other nuclear initiatives dropped out of public view. 

Most important, the once and future Russian President Vladimir Putin expresses far less interest in improving relations with the United States than does Dmitri Medvedev, the interim presidential seat-warmer for a few more weeks. Putin will meet Obama at Camp David shortly after his re-inauguration and take up the U.S.-planned missile defense in Europe as a main issue. He has, however, declined the invitation to fly on to join the chummy NATO summit in Chicago in June. Also, part of his anti-American election campaign this spring—a campaign that, oddly enough, coexisted with Putin's helpfulness in expanding supply lines for NATO troops in Afghanistan over the land-bridge from Russia through Central Asia—included sharp criticism of American construction of a missile defense shield in Europe.

In Seoul, good-cop Medvedev (in contrast to Putin’s bad-cop) publicly praised the reset years as "probably … the best level of relations between the United States and Russia" in decades. On missile defense, he added, "I believe we still have time; time hasn’t run out."

For his part, Obama asked Medvedev privately (or so he thought, unaware that he was talking near a live mike) to tell Putin not to press him now, as he would have "more flexibility" on missile defense after his re-election.

This is indeed the heart of the main Russian-American controversy today. Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama restructured his predecessor's plan for a missile defense shield in Europe to counter Iranian medium-range missiles. This plan had alarmed Moscow and also worried some European allies of the U.S. who feared the possibility of a new arms race. Specifically, Obama postponed deployment of those anti-missile elements that Moscow deemed threatening to the "fourth phase" of the intended system, which is at present set to launch in the 2020s.

The decision by Obama to postpone deployment helped to allay Moscow's immediate concern that the United State’s defense against Iran's medium-range missiles could be designed to target Russia's intercontinental nuclear missiles as well. The modification also relieved Washington's European allies, who are presently persuaded that Russia is a non-threatening second-class power and no longer fret about a possible arms race that Russia could never win.

On the subject of missile defense, three main differences define the argument between the U.S. and Russia.

First is the fundamental framework that Washington invented and then persuaded a reluctant Moscow to accept in the initial breakthrough to nuclear arms control treaties in the late 1970s. This was the counterintuitive deduction from the apocalyptic nuclear might of both superpowers that acknowledgment of a mutual "balance of terror" of offensive weapons would preserve peace better than futile but destabilizing attempts to develop defense against them. President Ronald Reagan launched a quest for a comprehensive missile defense system in the 1980s. All proposed systems, however, failed the test of being able to distinguish fast enough between real nuclear weapons and decoys in any incoming barrage. Cheap passive decoys could always overwhelm expensive interceptor missiles capable of hitting an attacker's supersonic missiles within seconds, and the real nuclear warheads could slip through and continue on their trajectory to pulverize their targets. The two superpowers therefore settled on basing their security on the premise of "deterring" each other from the mutual suicide they would commit if either one fired its nuclear weapons and then drew retaliation.

Today, the original roles are reversed. It is the Americans who say defense is good and are actively deploying a medium-range missile shield in Europe, while it is the Russians who insist that defense is bad, destabilizing, and dangerous.

The second bilateral argument comes in the difference between defending against medium-range and intercontinental-range missiles. Washington says its European missile shield does not threaten Russia's 1550 long-range nuclear warheads because it will only be able to shoot down the few medium-range missiles of a rogue state like Iran (or, potentially, North Korea), and should therefore help Russia defend itself against rogue states. Moscow doubts this claim and suspects that the U.S. is developing breakthrough technology that could allow it to upgrade a regional defense array into a global array that would neutralize Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The third bilateral dispute concerns the design of the cooperative missile-defense system that both countries say they want. The U.S. seeks an exchange of data from independent Russian and NATO systems. Russia—which sees Western anti-missile technology racing ahead of its own—wants joint control of a common system and thereby an operational Russian veto. Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demands a written guarantee that the NATO shield will not be targeted against Russia. On this, the United States refuses to give.

Against this backdrop, Obama and Medvedev agreed in Seoul to let technical talks proceed on missile-defense cooperation in preparation for political talks later. In fact, the outline of a technical modus vivendi (minus the fourth stage) has already been worked out by "track two" sherpas from civil society in a proposal presented last February by the American, Russian, and German-led Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI). Its sponsors intend to keep the initiative before the public eye by presenting it again at the NATO summit in Chicago.

Clearly, neither Obama nor Putin will be ready to embrace the EASI draft at Camp David in May. But perhaps the best hope for Obama, if he is in fact re-elected, is that by the time he would be able to show more flexibility on missile defense, Putin might have looked over his shoulder at the Chinese nuclear arsenal and decided to be more flexible himself in finding common cause with the West.





Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of From the Yaroslavsky Station and The Rebirth of Europe.

(Photo courtesy of mightyohm)

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