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POLITICS: U.S., Russia Affirm Ideal of “Nuclear-Free” World

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Apr 3 2009 (IPS) - In a meeting on the eve of the G20 summit in London, the leaders of the U.S. and Russia set out to take the first concrete steps towards a “reset” of relations between the two countries.

President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Dmitriy Medvedev released a joint statement Wednesday pledging to negotiate a replacement for the 1991 Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START), which expires in December 2009.

The statement said that START had “completely fulfilled its intended purpose” and that “they have therefore decided to move further along the path of reducing and limiting strategic offensive arms in accordance with the U.S. and Russian obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (NPT).

The NPT, opened for signatures in 1968, was a bargain between non-nuclear states which pledged to not pursue nuclear weapons if the already-nuclear signatories agreed to work towards “general and complete disarmament.” It also guaranteed compliant non-nuclear weapons states access to nuclear power technology.

“The Presidents decided to begin bilateral intergovernmental negotiations to work out a new, comprehensive, legally binding agreement on reducing and limiting strategic offensive arms to replace the START Treaty,” said the statement released Wednesday.

Negotiators for both governments will report back in July, and the two sides hope to conclude an agreement by the time START runs out in December.

The statement also alluded to building a “nuclear free world,” which is a basic tenet of Article VI of the NPT. Nonetheless, some commentators were surprised by the language.

“Russians I had spoken to a couple of months ago thought that Medvedev would not be willing to mention a nuclear-weapon-free world…and would instead insist on talking solely and more vaguely about fulfilling article VI.,” wrote James Acton, a King’s College London professor, on the widely read Arms Control Wonk blog. “So, the wording used in the statement is perhaps noteworthy.”

In early 2007, several influential U.S. elder statesmen – former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former defence secretary William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn – used similar language in a widely noted Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”

However, Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, cautioned that this week’s announcement did not mean that Obama and Medvedev were necessarily setting their sights on complete disarmament yet.

“This is kind of a reiteration of longstanding policy. They’re putting this agreement in the broader context of how we deal with nuclear threats globally,” he said, adding that by “demonstrating leadership” in disarmament, they could “call on other countries” to avoid weapons or disarm arsenals.

The U.S. has about 2,200 deployed strategic warheads, and Russia is on a path to having some 1,700. Kimball said that a reasonable goal for the next reduction treaty would be about 1,500. He said there have been hints, in the form of U.S. officials in London speaking to the press on background, that there may be another step to further reduce tactical weapons and delivery systems after this round of negotiating is concluded.

“What I think Obama and Medvedev are saying here is that we are taking an important step in the direction of nuclear weapons elimination,” said Kimball. “If they can conclude this agreement, they’re actually doing something in concrete terms to move in that direction.”

After five years of steadily souring relations with Russia, culminating in the war between Russia and Western-allied Georgia, the initial call to “reset” relations by the Obama administration came from Vice President Joe Biden. The call was reaffirmed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who delivered a symbolic “reset button” to Russian Foreign Minsiter Sergei Lavrov in their Mar. 6 meeting (though the word “reset” was embarrassingly mistranslated on the gift).

Russian cooperation is crucially important to the Obama administration as it pursues much of its bold international agenda. The U.S. wants Russian support for international sanctions aimed at bringing Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme to a halt, as well as help in establishing supply routes and helping with the task of defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan.

In 2001, after his first meeting between then-president and now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – still a powerful player in Russia – former President George W. Bush said that he had “looked the man in the eye” and gotten “a sense of his soul.” By the end of his presidency, it was clear that Bush’s attempt at clairvoyance had been mistaken.

The Bush administration continued to plan a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, angering Russians. Russia had, in turn, shut off energy supplies to Europe, and, more recently, spent lavishly on aid to Kyrgyzstan, shortly after which the former Soviet republic withdrew the U.S.’s right to keep an airbase there, depriving the U.S. of a crucial supply line to troops in Afghanistan.

But the height of tensions came in August 2008 with the Georgia-Russia war. Georgia has been close to the West and, particularly, the U.S. since its Rose Revolution in 2003. The U.S. repeatedly denounced Russia’s escalation of the conflict, which Washington contended Russia had started, despite some evidence and Russian assertions to the contrary.

Nonetheless, since Obama has taken office, there have been several symbolic and indicative gestures that suggest that the U.S., recognising the importance of Russia, is willing to negotiate on some demands.

First among these, and commonly hammered home by Russian officials broaching the subject, is the missile defence shield in Eastern Europe – a system that has been discussed since Pres. Ronald Regan’s eight-year term in the 1980s, though its feasibility has been consistently questioned.

The hints of concessions started to roll in after Russia cancelled plans to deploy cruise missiles on Russian territory in a European enclave. The decision came in late January just after Obama had taken office.

At a security conference in Munich in early February, Biden signaled that the U.S. will continue the missile defence plan, but is open to negotiating – erasing a red-line of the previous administration.

In early March, Obama sent a letter to Moscow again suggesting flexibility on the anti-ballistic missile system. Though the exact contents remain unknown, news accounts have said that the letter placed the system in the context of a possible Iranian weapon, though U.S. officials have denied that there was any quid pro quo with regards to dropping the system in exchange for Russian help pressuring Iran.

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