On Friday, March 26, Barack Obama proudly announced the completion of the START Treaty to reduce the stockpile of nuclear warheads in Russia and the US by almost 30%. The news conference was packed and well planned in advance. In Russia the president was too busy dressing down Olympic athletes for a combined poor performance at the Vancouver Olympics to hold a press conference. The real power in Russia, Prime Minister Putin, was busy talking about dangerous spring flooding. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, was left to quickly assemble an announcement in a little Kremlin backroom after hearing of the big US announcement. The difference in treatment between both countries clearly shows who won the negotiations.
For the US the treaty will be held up as an Obama ‘change’ that we can believe in. The spin has already been pumping out that it is a step towards complete nuclear disarmament. Given the development of ‘small’ tactical nuclear bombs in the US arsenal that is quite a stretch of the imagination. Of course the spin continues that the US relationship with Russia has been reset and the dawn of a new era of cooperation is underway. Yet another fantasy that some in the US may actually start to believe. In Russia there are no such illusions.
The treaty will be seen in Russia as a complete compromise with the Americans. Pretty much the worst thing imaginable short of higher taxes on Vodka and cigarettes. Of course the spin in Russia will be much easier with effective state control over television and newsprint media. In fact for months now the Missile Defense Shield issue has disappeared despite the US renewing its commitment to building one in Hungary this time. The spin already happening in Russia was to keep the issue off the front pages so that when the Start Treaty was announced it could be divorced from Missile Defense. A clever way to save a little face when everyone knows that the two issues are really one and the same. Heck, even Putin was shouting to everyone that would listen not too many months ago that both issues are related. Of course that will be forgotten in the media controlled spin of the new Start treaty.
The fact is that Russia didn’t have enough money to completely renew its aging nuclear arsenal and is already running at limited readiness today anyway. Military experts figure Russia will be running under the new Start treaty limit before the deal ‘kicks in’ after 7 years anyway. For Russia it’s best to sign a deal that limits the Americans to the same amount of missiles that Russia could hopefully afford. For the US the treaty is a way for President Obama to spin an international success and support sagging poll numbers after being beaten up over healthcare and the financial meltdown he walked into office facing.
The real elephant in the room that few are talking about however is Missile Defense. Russia forced an inclusion of an out clause in the new Start Treaty based on it but that was a weak compromise with no teeth. They can’t build more warheads unless the price of oil doubles anyway. Of course with Russian control of oil resources around the world increasing dramatically over the last decade that might just be possible. While the US continues to publicly state that Missile Defense is only meant for rogue states with a few missiles the truth is that the technology can simply be scaled up and will be able to handle as many warheads as you have interceptors to launch. Obama cleverly dropped the politically sensitive land based interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic to building a radar station in Hungary and interceptors to be based on US ships. While this helped Russia save face it in fact increased the effectiveness of the proposed Missile Shield by reducing military installation exposure and costs as well as providing a more flexible interceptor platform that can be moved wherever threats from Missiles are the highest at the time.
The basic problem facing everyone in the world is that the unusual safety provided for by mutually assured destruction is coming to an end. Russia can’t afford to quickly develop the technology and infrastructure to build an effective missile defense. Further it will be impossible to overwhelm a cheap interceptor missile program with expensive nuclear warheads. There will be a period of time very soon where the US will have missile defense and everyone else in the world will be vulnerable. Of course NATO has already requested Missile Shield coverage when the system is openly operating, thus extending the problem for Russia right up to its Baltic boarders.
If people think the US was the only superpower after the Soviet collapse in 1991 they haven’t seen anything yet! Pre-emptive wars with false intelligence reports like what happened in Iraq may be only the beginning. I’d hate to be a dictator in a country that holds significant strategic value to the US and isn’t all that US friendly right now. Sagging poll numbers or some rogue terrorist hiding in some corner of the country could cause my dictatorship to come to an end!
Prime minister Putin was not terribly far off base when he said the world needs a new security structure. The question is how long it will take the world to regain the military security balance it once had and how much damage will be done before then.