What Did Obama Just Say to Dmitri Medvedev?

Military analysis.
March 29 2012 6:17 PM

What’s Obama’s Nuclear Endgame?

Obama told Medvedev that he’ll have more “flexibility” to deal with nukes after November. What could he possibly mean?

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Again, for now, this is irrelevant, given the size of Russia’s arsenal. But if future U.S.-Russian arms-reduction treaties slash both sides’ arsenals down much further, the defensive interceptors start to take on a larger potential role in a nuclear strike / counter-strike scenario. To illustrate in extreme terms: A few dozen interceptors would make no difference if each side had 1,000 offensive warheads; but they might make some difference if each side had 500 or 200 or 100 warheads … pick your number.

And that’s the point—what is that number? How far can the two sides reduce their offensive arsenals before NATO’s missile defenses start to make the Russians very nervous about whether their arsenal can deter a nuclear strike in a crisis?

This is not a new issue. In a “unilateral statement” tacked on to the New START treaty, which Obama and Medvedev signed in April 2010, the Russians declared that there was a relationship between offensive and defensive weapons and that they reserved the right to withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. built up its defenses to the point where they “give rise to a threat” to Russia’s offensive “nuclear force potential.”

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Some Republicans at the time screamed that the Russians were boxing us in and strapping us with limits on our missile-defense program. So, in reaction, the Obama administration tacked on its own unilateral statement, taking note of the Russians’ concern but adding that the U.S. missile defenses “are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia” but are rather aimed to defend against “limited missile launched” by “regional threats,” and, to that end, the U.S. will “continue improving and deploying” such systems. (Obama spokesmen also noted that unilateral statements in a treaty have no binding effect.)

Still, there is indisputably a relationship between offensive and defensive arms. That is Arms Control 101. Anyone who says otherwise is lying or doesn’t understand the most basic principles of deterrence.

And so, this may be what Obama meant by “flexibility.” If the missile-defense program is the main obstacle to further reductions in offensive nuclear weapons, then maybe he can be flexible in some ways that require no congressional approval. He could, for example, stretch out the program. That intercontinental-range feature could come on line in 2025 instead of 2020 (that’s likely to happen, for technical reasons, anyway). Or those sites in Poland and Romania could be moved to make them seem less threatening to Russia. Or the Russians could send personnel to man the systems jointly. (Bush made this suggestion.)

If the defenses might still repel a small-scale attack by Iran or some other foe, and if the adjustment in the program would bring about a dramatic reduction in the offensive nuclear arsenals (but still leaving enough weapons to deter a first strike), what’s wrong with that?

Anyone who thinks there is something wrong with that must also believe that the defense system is—or ought to be—aimed at Russia. It’s worth remembering that even George W. Bush disputed that idea.

Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, appears to disagree with George W. Bush. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Romney not only suggested that a second-term Obama would scuttle missile defense, he also attacked the notion of being flexible with Russia about anything. Russia, he said, “is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe, they fight for every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that [Obama] has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.”

When Blitzer asked whether Iran, China, or North Korea might be more dangerous than Russia, Romney replied that Russia always “lines up with the world’s worst actors,” whether at the U.N. Security Council, in dealing with a nuclear Iran or North Korea, or any other situation.

Think whatever you want of missile defense. This is nonsense. Since Obama’s “reset” policy, Russia has supported the U.S. position on U.N. sanctions against Iran and North Korea. It reversed its decision to sell advanced air-defense radar to Iran, which would have made an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities (should someone launch one) far more difficult. It allowed transit of NATO troops and equipment to Afghanistan, which has allowed us to reduce our reliance on supply routes through Pakistan. And just this week, the Russian energy minister said it would make up oil shortfalls to Europe that might result from the sanctions on Iran.

Russia isn’t entirely in sync with U.S. interests: It opposed the resolution against Syria, for instance, and it would be a stretch to call it a full-fledged ally. But the Cold War is long over. The vast majority of both sides’ nuclear weapons, as well as a good part of the missile-defense plan, has nothing to do with maintaining a “balance of power” in any meaningful sense of the phrase. And it would be good for real national security if the Republicans stopped pretending otherwise.

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