Conflict & Justice

Obama’s nuclear reduction proposal falls flat in Moscow

MOSCOW, Russia — Moscow has met President Barack Obama’s bold proposal to reduce American and Russian nuclear weapons with skepticism and outright criticism.

During a major speech in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday, Obama offered to cut the number of each country’s warheads by a third, to around 1,000, part of his effort to put the world on a path toward eliminating nuclear weapons.

But it struck an uneasy chord in a country that relies on its nuclear arsenal as the primary guarantor of national security.

The proposed reduction comes shortly after the 2010 New START treaty, which limits the arsenal of nuclear warheads in Russia and the United States to 1,550 each by 2018.

“Proposals for such radical steps of nuclear disarmament only two years after the ratification of the previous treaty are taken here either as PR that is not seriously designed to reach an agreement, or as an ill-intentioned plot to deprive Russia of the main pillar of its security,” said Alexei Arbatov, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

New START formed a cornerstone of the administration’s “reset” policy with Moscow. With the Senate unlikely to ratify a new treaty, Obama left open the possibility of informally agreeing to “negotiated cuts,” as President George H.W. Bush did with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Yuri Ushakov, the Kremlin’s advisor on foreign policy, insisted on Wednesday that any reduction agreement would have to include other countries with nuclear capabilities.

“The situation is far from the one in the ’60s and ’70s when only the US and the Soviet Union held a dialog on reducing their nuclear arms stockpile,” he told reporters.

Speaking ahead of Obama’s Berlin speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday underscored Russia’s commitment to maintaining its current arsenal.

“We can’t allow the balance of the strategic deterrence system to be broken, or the effectiveness of our nuclear forces to be diminished,” the state RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

Those comments reflect a sense of Russian pragmatism that experts say clashes with Obama’s perceived idealism. They’re also prompted by the fact that Russia’s arsenal of conventional weapons is inferior to America’s.

Although Russia recently embarked on a massive, $700 billion re-armament program, experts say it still lags far behind the American military’s technological capabilities.

That’s why the Russian perception holds that Obama’s view of a world without nuclear weapons means a seriously weakened Russia, says Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

“They think that the world without nuclear weapons is a world where the United States — being the biggest economy, the leader of the most powerful military alliance in the world, having performance conventional weapons versus obsolete Russian weapons — is a one in which the Americans can hit and punish anyone with sword and fire, as they did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and many other places,” he said.

Although Pukhov didn’t exclude the possibility of Russia’s signing a treaty, he believes Moscow would likely seek considerable “bargaining chips.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the hawkish chief of Russia’s defense industry, hinted at just that when he slammed Obama’s reduction plan Wednesday, citing Russia’s persistent criticism of US missile defense systems in Europe.

"How can we take seriously this idea about cuts in strategic nuclear potential while the United States is developing its capabilities to intercept Russia's nuclear potential?” he told reporters on Wednesday, according to RIA Novosti.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed those words, saying in an interview on state television Thursday that any discussions over nuclear cuts would have to also address US missile defense in Europe.

Although Washington has repeatedly assured the Kremlin that any missile shield would not be aimed at Russia, the issue has long remained among the most prominent thorns in bilateral relations.

Those ties have grown increasingly strained in recent years, hampered by a recent string of high-profile disputes, most prominently over the Syrian crisis as well as controversial travel bans against officials to both Russia and the United States.

Nevertheless, a separate agreement between both sides announced earlier this week renewed a 20-year-old agreement to decommission old Soviet-era nuclear weapons after Moscow declared it would pull out last year. The Nunn-Lugar program, named for two former senators who authored it, will continue in a scaled-back form.

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Still, Arbatov says Obama’s “unexpected and ill-prepared” Berlin proposal arrived with poor timing.

“Relations of the kind we had in the ‘80s under [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and [US President Ronald] Reagan would be necessary to provide the political environment for such a huge step in further nuclear reductions,” he said. “And we don’t have it now.”