Stage set for new fight over START treaty

Stage set for new fight over START treaty

A new gambit by Russia to link missile defense to a still-pending nuclear arms agreement is threatening to throw another wrench into plans to quickly sign and pass the deal in Congress.

The U.S.-Russian negotiations over the update to the recently expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty were supposed to be separate from the fraught issue of American missile defenses in Europe. After all, that’s what Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed to when they met in July.

Since then, Russian officials including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have explicitly linked U.S. missile defense plans to the treaty. Now, two sources who were briefed on the negotiations say the Russians intend to release a statement declaring their right to unilaterally withdraw from the new agreement if they believe U.S. missile defense deployments upset "strategic stability."

Nothing’s final until announced, but three key senators are already warning that they can’t go along with that. In a not-yet-released letter obtained exclusively by The Cable, Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, warn National Security Advisor James L. Jones, "Even as a unilateral declaration, a provision like this would put pressure on the United States to limit its systems or their deployment because of Russian threats of withdrawal from the treaty."

The State Department won’t comment on the record about classified negotiations, but says that such side statements are commonplace.

"Anybody who knows anything about treaties knows that it is customary to be able to withdraw for reasons pertaining to one’s national interest, so there’s nothing new or diabolical here," said Jonathan Kaplan, a spokesman for Ellen Tauscher, the department’s top arms-control official.

After all, the U.S. did withdraw unilaterally from the anti-ballistic missile treaty when the Bush administration concluded it was no longer in American interests. And besides, the Obama administration’s plan for missile defense in Europe is not aimed at Russia, State insists. In fact, the Obama administration has made efforts to stake out areas of cooperation with Russia, although those have met with limited success.