My 23 year old son David is too young to remember the Soviet Union or have any first-hand experience with what life and international relations were like during the Cold War. It turns out I need not have worried about this major gap in his life experience. Apparently, Russian President Medvedev, long feted in the West as a progressive and the antithesis of that country’s prior leaders from V.I. Lenin to current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has decided to take a page from the Soviet-era playbook when it comes to arms control. In a speech to the Russian people, Medvedev played the hoary card of a new arms race if NATO did not acquiesce to Russian demands regarding missile defenses. “We will either come to terms on missile defense and form a full-fledged joint mechanism of cooperation or … we will plunge into a new arms race and have to think of deploying new strike means, and it’s obvious that this scenario will be very hard.” This statement comes even after the Obama Administration cancelled the so-called Third Site missile defense in Europe in favor of a new architecture that is inherently less of a problem for Russia and negotiated a new strategic arms treaty that is remarkably favorable to Russia.
Let me get this straight. Either NATO does what Russia says or there will be an arms race and Moscow will deploy “new strike means.” Really? This the best threat the Russian President can throw down? It seems that Medvedev is even more ignorant than my son when it comes to the history of the Cold War. The last time Russia — then the Soviet Union — engaged in an arms race with the West the result was the collapse of its entire empire. Medvedev’s Russia has neither the resources nor the engineering and scientific capability to initiate an arms race with anyone or to deploy new strike means. His attempt simply to modernize Russia’s sclerotic conventional force posture is failing. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are aging out badly and would, absent the New START treaty, have to be reduced to levels below those provided for in that agreement. As for a new, Russian-led arms race, as my son would say, PULEEEZE.
Medvedev’s effort to play the bully comes at a particularly unfortunate time for his country’s interest in securing the U.S. Senate’s ratification of New START. The argument by those casting a skeptical eye on the new agreement that the Senate should not rush to ratify in the lame-duck session are given extra validity by Medvedev’s ham-handed attempt to pressure that institution. Since when has that august body ratified a treaty under such a threat? The answer is never. Moreover, those who worry that the Obama Administration has made some secret covenant with Moscow regarding limits on U.S. missile defenses can point not only to Medvedev’s statements but also to newly leaked documents reported inThe Washington Times that show that the White House basically lied when it publicly denied that the U.S. and Russia were engaged in secret negotiations over missile defenses. Such reports serve only to buttress the arguments of New START skeptics about the rush to ratify and underscore the need for serious and sustained investments in our strategic infrastructure.
Not only does Medvedev’s attempt to “channel” Soviet-era leaders when it comes to missile defenses place the current strategic arms agreement at risk but it could also undermine future negotiations. Taken together with a Wall Street Journal report that Russia recently moved some of its estimated 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons closer to NATO in response to the deployment of Patriot air defense missiles to Poland, one has to question Russia’s true commitment to arms control much less any interest they may have in the Obama Administration’s cherished goal of Global Zero.
In reality, the Kremlin’s antipathy to Western missile defenses is based on a single objective: to maximize the political and military value of its aging nuclear arsenal. Absent nuclear weapons and Russia becomes like the Netherlands or Belgium, a military midget. It has no non-nuclear “new strike means.” While Russia does possess advanced missile defenses that could be deployed in response to NATO’s missile defenses, such a step would not serve Russia’s one abiding strategic interest, to continue to pose a nuclear threat to the West. Of particular importance to Moscow in this regard is its 25 to 1 advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, precisely those that would be most threatened by robust missile defenses in Europe and the Far East. Russia needs its nuclear weapons and the ability to pose an unimpeded threat to the West in order to retain any power and relevance in the 21st century international order. For this reason, Medvedev’s crude threat only serves to underscore the reality that Russia cannot and will not join the U.S. in an effort to reach Global Zero.
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