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Disarmament Deal Takes Two Steps Back

MOSCOW, Sep 2 2013 (IPS) - A Kremlin compromise on nuclear disarmament looks as far away as ever as Russian president Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama use their countries’ strained relations to bolster their own domestic political agendas, experts say.

Obama’s call, during a speech in Berlin in June, for a dramatic reduction in the world’s nuclear weapons had led to hopes that there would be cuts in world nuclear arsenals on the agenda of a potential nuclear summit in 2016, and gave extra impetus to what will be the first-ever high level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on nuclear disarmament this month.

But following Russia’s granting of asylum to U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden and Washington’s subsequent cancelling of a summit meeting between Obama and Putin, some critics say the U.S. may use the political rift between the two states as a pretext to fail to make progress on disarmament.

And the Kremlin is more than happy to do the same.

“What drives nuclear disarmament in both countries is domestic, not foreign policy."

Nikolai Sokov, a fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, told IPS: “What drives nuclear disarmament in both countries is domestic, not foreign policy. Confrontation serves the Russian domestic political agenda, just as it does for U.S. politicians with the U.S. domestic political agenda. The current impasse satisfies both sides.

“Russia has no need to change its position on nuclear weapons and President Putin is under no pressure whatsoever at home to change the stance. Even with the political administration there is no one in the Russian administration who is against the current stance, not even in private.”

Russia and the U.S. control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal and since the end of the Cold War there have been various agreements on reducing the number of warheads on both sides.

The recent call by Obama would see both Washington and Moscow reduce their arsenals by a third.

But even under the best circumstances the Kremlin has historically been reluctant to agree to drastic cuts due to the differences in weapons delivery capabilities between the two countries, fearing that it would be left at a military disadvantage by dramatic blanket cuts.

It has also been wary of U.S. missile defence plans and without assurances that they would not be used against Russia, the Kremlin is reluctant to agree to concessions on nuclear weapons.

Speaking on Russian television foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that nuclear weapons reductions should only be considered if they involved all countries – a view repeated by Putin.

But the recent strains in the countries’ relationship mean that the Kremlin has a chance to further entrench its position and win political points with the electorate.

“The Russian public is not against the current anti-American stance. The image of the U.S. at the moment is not good in Russia. People see the situation with Syria and think to themselves ‘we can’t deal with the Americans, all they want to do is drop bombs’.

“The Russian public likes the tough tone being taken with the U.S.,” Sokov told IPS.

Recent opinion polls show that the majority of Russians supported what Snowden did and back the decision to grant him asylum.

They also show attitudes towards Obama changing negatively.

Some political commentators in Russia argue that the Kremlin’s stance on disarmament is not even anti-American but simply a normal protection of the country’s interests.

Tatiana Gomozova, political editor at Kommersant FM radio in Moscow, told IPS: “I don’t really think that Russia is actually against the U.S. on the issue – it’s just for itself. The truth is that what Mr. Obama called for [in Berlin] was something over the long term. It’s a goal he himself can’t reach so it was more a political statement than a specific plan. It was also more a speech for his allies than for Russia.

“But while it’s not on today’s Russia-U.S. agenda, I wouldn’t say that Moscow won’t support this idea [of a drastic cut in nuclear weapons] one day.”

But while much of the major media in Russia toes the Kremlin line on many matters, there have been some voices calling for a more conciliatory approach from both sides.

In a long editorial earlier this month the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily newspaper urged both the White House and the Kremlin to work together on the issue of global security, including nuclear disarmament, and lead the way in helping to form a new, safer, international community.

It said: “The issues of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the prevention of nuclear terrorism fall mainly on the shoulders of our two nations…. Common sense dictates that sooner or later Russia and the United States will become partners in the construction of a new system of international politics of the 21st century. It is hoped that this will happen sooner rather than later – the price of delay may be too high.”

But experts remain pessimistic of any progress on disarmament between the two nations in the near future.

Sokov told IPS: “While it would be good for both sides to agree something on disarmament, concessions are unlikely and I’m not hopeful that anything positive will happen soon.”

 
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