Does the newly negotiated START Treaty between the United States and Russia compromise American security and/or the security of its allies? The answer is not simple for either side in the debate. It is this very ambiguity that will, and probably should, make ratification of the treaty by the US Senate anything but a foregone conclusion.
The new START Treaty signed by US President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year is intended to take the place of the 1991 START Treaty that expired at the end of 2009. It has been hailed as another pivotal point along the path to securing better relations between the former Cold War foes. It is also being promoted by arms control advocate up to and including those that embrace the so-called "Global Zero" movement as a positive, though insufficient, step along the path to a non-nuclear world. Practically the entire US military as well as a bipartisan collection of senior statesmen such as former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and many others have voiced their unequivocal support.
By contrast, its opponents raise numerous questions about the preamble of the treaty and whether it could ever be used as a way to limit further development of a US missile defense system. They also state that the cuts hit the US more than Russia, that it uses gimmicky accounting rules for how many bombs could be loaded on aircraft, that it does not address the imbalance of deployed tactical nuclear weapons between Russia and the US, etc.
Other opponents also raise serious questions about the nature of the verification regime the new START Treaty will have vs. its predecessor. The admittedly conservative Heritage Foundation found a series of problems with the new verification mechanisms including the mothballing of exchange of telemetry data and a reduction in the number of inspections.
While it is true that in the absence of a new START Treaty, there would be no mechanism in place to exchange any information about what nuclear arms and delivery systems are deployed between Russia and the US; the troublesome lack of a fully effective verification regime, much more so than the hyperbolic fretting about missile defense, is a problem that should not be ignored just to get "something" in place.
There is good reason to believe that Russia's reliance on nuclear weapons will increase over time irrespective of this treaty. As Russia's conventional military projection capabilities potentially decline, it will likely feel a need to compensate with what is still the ultimate equalizer. Indeed, its need for nuclear weapons will probably have less to do with its fears of an encroaching "West" and more to do with an encroaching "East," as China continues to grow even during a time period where Russia's demography may not be as sustainable as in the past.
If this occurs, a lack of appropriate verification mechanisms could easily open the door to cheating. In turn, this would obviate the intended goal of the treaty in the first place.
Additionally, it cannot be forgotten, that the ratification of the new START Treaty is taking place in a highly charged political atmosphere and is backed by a President whose own stated mission is the rather pollyannaish vision of a world without nuclear weapons (even if it "won't be in his lifetime"). It also is taking place in a time where the concept of deterrence is being downgraded by the present Administration. Consequently, even beyond the issues of Russian compliance and the US ability to detect non-compliance, there are other reasons for legitimate concern.
It would seem that a better alternative would be to reauthorize the previous START Treaty with the nuclear limits associated with the SORT Treaty, as agreed to by former Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2002. Those limits were still dramatic, 1700-2200, for each side as opposed to the 1550 in the new START. Further, if tied to pre-existing verification mechanisms of START I, those limits would still embrace a willingness to de-emphasize a confrontational posture between the US and Russia, while not unduly limiting US flexibility in what could easily degrade into bad deal.
Greg Randolph Lawson is the Director of Communications for a US based political advocacy organization and is a life long observer of political and foreign affairs.
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