WASHINGTON, June 19 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama’s desire to pursue nuclear arms cuts with Russia offers fertile ground for cooperation with Moscow but is above all about securing an enduring security legacy, a range of experts said Wednesday.
“The nuclear issue itself is a special interest of Obama’s – he’s deeply passionate about these issues,” Cliff Kupchan, head of the Russia and CIS team at Eurasia Group, New York-based consultancy, told RIA Novosti.
“I think that really stems from his personal worldview. Where do you go [on the nuclear issue]? You go to Russia.”
In a wide-ranging speech Wednesday before a crowd of 6,000 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Obama said that after “a comprehensive review,” he has concluded that the United States can cut its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by one-third while still ensuring the nation’s safety.
“And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures,” Obama told the crowd.
Disputes over human rights and the civil war in Syria have rattled US-Russian relations over the past year, but a push by the Obama administration for cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation overlaps with its “intention to improve and keep the bilateral relationship at a working, respectful level,” Kupchan said.
“What I think the administration is intent on doing is to ensure a functional and mutually beneficial relationship with Russia on key issues,” said Kupchan, a former US State Department official. “There is no naiveté that Russia will be like the UK.”
Obama’s proposal Wednesday did not come as a surprise, nonproliferation experts said. He had been expected to announce a further drive for reductions at some point – the only question was how far the proposed cuts would go, analyst Steven Pifer told RIA Novosti.
“I think what you saw in that statement today was first and foremost about the president trying to take further steps to find a nuclear legacy to leave behind,” said Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and director of the arms control initiative at the Brookings Institution.
In his most recent State of the Union address in February, Obama said that he planned to engage Moscow in an attempt to further slash its nuclear arsenals. The New York Times reported days before that speech that his administration wanted to negotiate an informal agreement with the Kremlin to reduce each country’s strategic nuclear arsenal to between 1,000 and 1,100 deployed warheads.
Those cuts would be even deeper than the 1,550 deployed warheads allowed by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in 2010.
The negotiations that led to that pact were a logical forum for cooperation after Obama took office in 2009, a time when the bilateral relationship was “either totally dysfunctional or non-operative,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Russia expert in the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton.
“We knew how to do things in the arms-control realm even during the worst days of tension between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War,” Weiss, vice president for studies with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, told RIA Novosti.
The New START treaty, however, came at time when the previous strategic arms reduction treaty was set to expire, giving both sides an impetus to hammer out a deal, Weiss said. Further cuts of the kind proposed by Obama on Wednesday are lacking such an “action-forcing event,” meaning Washington could face significant obstacles in convincing Russia that such cuts are necessary, he added.
Obama’s desire to leave a lasting legacy on nuclear nonproliferation “may not be a persuasive argument in Moscow, where there’s been a clear connection drawn between offense and defense, and where going back decades there are longstanding Russian concerns about US missile defense development directly impacting Russia’s willingness to cut strategic forces,” Weiss said.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin aired such concerns immediately after Obama’s announcement Wednesday, saying Moscow could not “take seriously” such proposals while Washington pursues a missile defense system vehemently opposed by the Kremlin.
“How can we take seriously this idea about cuts in strategic nuclear potential while the United States is developing its capabilities to intercept Russia's nuclear potential,” Rogozin told reporters in St. Petersburg.
Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s defense industry, said an arms race involves both offensive and defensive weapons in a vicious circle and that Obama’s proposed new cuts represent “either openly lying, bluffing and deceiving, or demonstrating a deep lack of professionalism.”
Pifer, however, said Obama’s proposal could resonate with budget-conscience officials in Moscow as Russia undertakes an effort to replace its strategic nuclear forces.
“The Russians so far have not publically shown great enthusiasm for further nuclear reductions, but they are in the process of replacing their old strategic forces, so a lower number might save them a significant amount of money,” Pifer said.
“So there may be some incentive on the Russian side.”
Obama’s announcement that Washington will “seek bold reductions in US and Russian tactical weapons in Europe” could be a taller order, Kupchan said.
“We don’t really have them, and Russia has a lot of them,” he said. “The interests are entirely asymmetric. But on strategic arms, there is, I think, some chance.”
The United States has not released information concerning the number of tactical nuclear weapons it maintains, but it is believed to have deployed around 500 tactical warheads in NATO member countries Belgium, Italy, Turkey, German and the Netherlands, according to a January 2011 report by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a Washington-based research group.
One open-source estimate has pegged the number of deployed Russian tactical nuclear weapons at around 2,000, the research group noted.
There are fewer barriers to strategic arms reductions on the US side than there are for Russia, Kupchan said. In Washington, Obama’s faces largely political obstacles from conservatives in the US Congress resistant to slashing nuclear stockpiles, while in Russia the issue is a policy challenge because of the political and military elite in Moscow who view reductions as a threat to Russian deterrence capabilities, he explained.
“It’s hard to get from here to there on reducing strategic arms without solving that problem,” Kupchan said. “The real challenge lies on the Russian side.”