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Biden and Donilon preparing for new nuclear discussions with Russia

Biden and Donilon preparing for new nuclear discussions with Russia

Vice President Joe Biden will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this weekend in Munich and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will travel to Moscow next month to try to kick-start a new round of U.S.-Russia nuclear reduction negotiations, The Cable has learned.

It was four years ago at the Munich Security Conference that Biden first spoke about the Obama administration’s desire to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations after years of deterioration during the George W. Bush administration. Now, at the beginning of Obama’s second term, Biden and Donilon are leading the charge to reinvigorate that reset, following a series of setbacks in the U.S.-Russia relationship that has included President Vladimir Putin accusing the United States of meddling in Russian politics, anger over a new U.S. law to sanction Russian human rights violators, and a new Russian ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans.

At their meeting last March on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea, President Barack Obama was caught on a hot mic telling then President Dmitry Medvedev that after the November 2012 election he would have more "flexibility," a comment many interpreted to mean Obama would be able to sidestep potential political opposition to changes he wanted to make to America’s nuclear posture and missile defense plans.

In an interview last week in Davos with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Medvedev explained that Obama was signaling he would have more negotiating power on these subjects, but said that the two countries were still quite far apart.

"Any U.S. president during his second term can take a stronger position and act in a more decisive manner, and that is exactly what Barack meant," Medvedev said. "But if we talk about the subject itself, it is extremely difficult, and so far we don’t see any flexibility. There are no easy solutions in terms of anti-missile defense. There is no flexibility. We have not changed our previous positions. The U.S. has one opinion, and the Russian Federation, unfortunately, has a different opinion. These positions are not getting any closer."

Some in Congress are concerned that Biden and Donilon, in their upcoming meetings with Russian leaders, will define exactly what that "flexibility" might mean and propose unilateral reductions in U.S. nuclear stockpiles or alterations to U.S. missile-defense plans as an enticement for Russia to sit down for new talks.

"Ahead of your unannounced  discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov this weekend in Munich, and prior to Mr. Donilon’s forthcoming February discussions in Moscow, I write seeking your assurance as to President Obama’s plans for future potential U.S. arms reductions," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, wrote in a letter to Biden Wednesday that was obtained by The Cable.

Following the bitter and lengthy fight in 2010 over ratification of New START, the U.S.-Russia treaty that capped the number of strategic deployed nuclear weapons on both sides and renewed an intricate verification regime, Rogers and other Republicans are worried that the Obama administration might not pursue a new treaty, but rather strike a deal with Russia that won’t have to be approved by Congress … or just reduce U.S. nuclear stockpiles unilaterally.

Rogers pointed out in the letter that as a senator in 2002, Biden joined with Sen. Jesse Helms to write to then Secretary of State Colin Powell to remind him that "with the exception of the SALT 1 agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution."

"Mr. Secretary, we see no reason whatsoever to alter this practice," Biden and Helms wrote at the time.

Donilon intends to transmit a personal letter to Putin from Obama "articulating his plans for further U.S. arms reductions and perhaps even agreements about U.S. missile defenses to entice Russia to the negotiating table," Rogers wrote.

The National Security Staff and the Office of the Vice President declined to comment for this story and declined to offer any response to Rogers’s letter.

Russia experts acknowledge that a new arms control agreement with Moscow will be difficult but say that the White House is committed to exploring whether it is possible. Obama is personally driving this policy and sees nuclear weapons reductions, as spelled out in his 2009 speech in Prague, as part of his legacy.

"The Donilon visit seems to be all about the next round [of nuclear reduction negotiations]," said Samuel Charap, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who until recently worked in the arms control office at the State Department. "The president is serious about the whole Prague agenda thing. He wasn’t making that up."

There is no clarity on which types of weapons might be included in the next round of U.S.-Russia arms control negotiations, but the administration is said to be open to including strategic deployed nukes, strategic non-deployed nukes, tactical nukes, and missile defense in the talks.

"The question is what kind of package you can put together with those four pieces to make a deal and what’s the point of the deal," Charap said. "It’s harder to make a compelling case to arms control skeptics here and there about why you need another agreement now. There’s going to have to be a three-way balancing act between the interagency, Congress, and the Russians — if the administration decides to pursue a new treaty."

Stephen Pifer of the Brookings Institution recently released a report and an article spelling out some ideas for how a deal could be done outside the framework of a formal treaty that would have to be ratified by the U.S. Senate. The crux of the deal would be a cooperative agreement between NATO and Russia on missile defense, Pifer argued.

"Experts from the Pentagon and Russian Defense Ministry reportedly held productive exchanges in early 2011 regarding what a cooperative missile defense arrangement would entail… Progress slowed in spring 2011, when Russia took the position that it required a ‘legal guarantee’ that U.S. missile defenses would not be directed against Russian strategic forces," he wrote.

"If Moscow is prepared to move off of its requirement for a legal guarantee, and Washington and NATO are prepared to show some greater transparency and flexibility in their approach, one can see the elements of a compromise that would allow agreement on a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense arrangement." 

If the missile-defense issue were removed as an obstacle, a path toward an agreement on further nuclear weapons reductions would open up, the theory goes.

The State Department’s International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), which reports to acting Under Secretary for Arms Control Rose Gottemoeller, issued a report last November spelling out how further nuclear reductions might be achieved, with or without the cooperation of the Senate or the Russians.

The ISAB presented options for three scenarios: "completing the New START Treaty reductions early; working with Russia on transparency and verification of nonstrategic nuclear weapons; and engaging in parallel nuclear arms reductions to levels below New START, if Russia is willing to reciprocate." 

"Unilateral and coordinated reductions can be quicker and less politically costly … relative to treaties with adversarial negotiations and difficult ratification processes," the report stated.

Administration critics are already preparing to fight any attempt by the White House to push forward with nuclear reductions absent the consent of the Senate.

"Senators should block end-runs around the Constitution’s treaty clause," wrote Bush administration officials John Bolton and John Yoo in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month. "An informal agreement would prevent effective congressional scrutiny of the unwise rush to slash the nuclear arsenal, America’s ultimate national-security safeguard and a crucial buttress of world peace."