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RUSSIA: New START May End With a Whimper

Analysis by Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Sep 4 2010 (IPS) - Efforts by the U.S. and Russian governments to move speedily towards the abolition of strategic nuclear weapons have hit stumbling blocks and continue to generate debates among experts about the practicality of achieving a nuclear- free world in the near future.

The main point, experts say, is that Russia and the U.S. have only taken weak steps to fulfil the objectives of the first strategic arms reduction treaty signed in 1991.

“Russia assigns significant military utility to its nuclear arsenal and so has less interest than the U.S. in promoting nuclear disarmament. For instance, it maintains several thousand tactical nuclear weapons in western Russia to counterbalance NATO’s conventional military superiority,” Ben Rhode, a research associate for non-proliferation and disarmament at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London told IPS in an e-mail interview.

“Many in the West have said such weapons will need to be included in future arms control talks, but I don’t know how enthusiastic Russia would be about this. A world free of nuclear weapons would see the U.S.’s military superiority increased, and Russia would lose one of the very few ways in which it can justify its claims to be a great power.”

The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START expired in December 2009. The new START agreement, signed on Apr. 8, 2010 by the Russian and U.S. presidents in Prague (and followed by the first round of negotiations in Moscow from May 18 to 20) has allowed Russia to limit U.S. nuclear forces at the expense of its own rapidly aging delivery vehicles and unattainable warhead ceilings – each country being limited to 1,550 strategic warheads on 700 delivery vehicles.

But, Robert Orttung, a senior fellow at the Jefferson Institute in Washington, DC, told IPS: “In order to keep the past achievements valid and in force, the two parties have engaged in updating the key provisions of that treaty. When finalised, this may have positive repercussions in the wider world.”

Beyond the agreements on nuclear weapons and Afghanistan, Orttung noted that it would be hard for the U.S. and Russia to work together because of the fundamental values underlying their regimes.

He pointed out “Russia is increasingly authoritarian and relies heavily on official anti-U.S. rhetoric to boost its legitimacy. Through the election of Obama, the U.S. recently proved that change is possible through a peaceful political process. This is the kind of message that the Russian leadership does not want to hear or transmit on to the rest of the population.”

Tom Collina and Greg Thielmann, both senior fellows at the Washington- based Arms Control Association told IPS “Russia can commit to President Obama’s call to negotiate another treaty after New START is approved, that will cover strategic, tactical and non-deployed weapons. The greatest challenge will be Russia’s reluctance to give up its tactical weapons as it would not want to reduce its nuclear arsenal any more. And it will also seek limitations on U.S. missile defences, which the U.S. will not want to provide.” However, to make major strides toward nuclear abolition, it is also imperative to address the complicated issues of tactical and non-deployed nuclear warheads. The major obstacle here is the difficulty of verifying arms control limits in these categories.

For example, Russia has no intended use for the hundreds of nuclear warheads for surface-to-air missiles and many of Russia’s shorter-range nuclear weapons have little utility in the post-Cold War era. Once Russia comes to recognise its large tactical nuclear arsenal as a liability in a world where the most dangerous threat is nuclear terrorism, it will be free to take unilateral initiatives and propose mutual arms control limits.

Last week, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called on all countries to adopt a comprehensive declaration for a nuclear-free world. “This declaration would reflect the determination of all countries to move step-by-step toward the ideals of a nuclear-free world,” he said in a message to participants at a conference on International Day against Nuclear Tests.

Pavel Andreyev, RIA Novosti political commentator, observes in his comments that there is every reason to believe that a significant reduction – let alone abolition – of the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals would not serve as a positive example for other countries to follow. The idea of a non-nuclear world with today’s unstable security conditions is a non-starter.

The Russian elite’s lack of trust in the U.S. undermines the idea that Washington is ready to abandon its nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if Russia and the U.S. write off their nuclear warheads, it could provide additional impetus for the more threatening elements in the international community to further develop their own nuclear capabilities, Andreyev added.

For Russia, there is an additional stimulus to avoid a reduction of its nuclear capability. It is the long overdue military reform which would cut back on conventional forces, increasing the role of the nuclear deterrent.

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