Senate should slow down ratification of New START treaty


While the Obama administration trades horses and twists arms to get a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia through the Senate before the November elections, no one seems to have noticed that Washington is making all the concessions and Moscow none.

Under mounting pressure from the White House, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has been pushing to vote the treaty out of his committee. That vote was expected last week but now has been postponed until after the August congressional recess. As former Richard Nixon advisor Dimitri Simes wrote in an article last month with Dov Zakheim, “Senator Kerry’s undue hurry — which appears at least in part motivated by the politics he himself decries, including a hope to win, for himself and the administration, a public success — is unneeded and inappropriate. The world’s greatest deliberative body deserves a little more time.”

There are three key reasons why the full Senate should slow down ratification of the New START treaty.

First, as the State Department revealed late last month, the United States believes Russia is not fully complying with its obligations under the previous START treaty. The public report does not go into detail about the recent violations. However, in the past, Russia has skirted inspections of particular warheads.

Second, the Russians won’t need to cheat this time; President Obama’s diplomatic team made sure they won’t have to. It appears that the U.S. made the only concessions. The treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads for both countries at 1,500, but the Russian news agency RIA Novosti acknowledges that loopholes allow Russia to keep 2,100. In addition, tactical warheads are exempt; Russia has 10 times more of them than the U.S., and they can reach our allies. Meanwhile, the treaty requires the U.S. to sacrifice ballistic missile launchers — the new limit is 700, and we have 850 — but the Russians already maintain fewer than 700, so they won’t have to give up a thing.

Unlike the previous treaty, New START also incentivizes the U.S. and Russia to place multiple warheads on each missile. As arms control guru Keith Payne notes, the Russians are developing new missiles with multiple warheads capable of reaching the United States, while the Obama administration is heading in the opposite direction.

It gets worse. The treaty counts a strategic bomber as only a single weapon, no matter how many weapons it carries. And the Russians are developing a new heavy bomber, while our B-52s are nearly 60 years old, with no plans to replace them.

Last, even if there were no doubts that the Kremlin would make good on its obligations, Russian and American officials disagree on New START’s implications for missile defense. As Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said before a Senate panel in June: “There is no meeting of the minds on missile defense. The Russians hate it. They’ve hated it since the late 1960s.”

The Russians claim that the linkage between offensive and defensive weapons in the preamble of the treaty is binding, and they issued a statement that they would withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. upgrades its missile defense systems qualitatively or quantitatively. U.S. officials say the preamble is not binding and that the treaty does not affect U.S. missile defense plans.

A treaty is only an agreement if both parties agree on its meaning.

The U.S. should sit down with the Russians and stipulate what qualifies as “qualitative” and “quantitative.” No one knows how the Russians will view the deployment of upgraded U.S. defensive systems in Europe, but considering that they opposed the last plan to do so — even though it posed no threat to their nuclear deterrent — the future is not promising. Many experts believe the Obama administration scrapped the third long-range missile defense site that President George W. Bush would have built in Europe over Russia’s objections.

The administration may well delay developing and deploying more advanced missile defenses if doing so would jeopardize Russia’s commitment to the treaty. That could hardly come at a more inopportune time, as the Defense Intelligence Agency reported in May that Iran may have a missile that can hit the U.S. in five years.

If the U.S. and Russia both intend to continue decommissioning their nuclear weapons without a new treaty — as all signs suggest — they already can.

Unless Obama administration officials can make ironclad commitments to the Senate that the U.S. will modernize its nuclear forces and deploy a robust mix of offensive, defensive, nuclear and conventional systems to protect the U.S. and its allies, the Senate should not ratify the New START. To do so would weaken America’s defenses at a time when the threats to them are only growing.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the former manager of the congressional Bi-partisan Missile Defense Caucus.