The Pause Button

If the Senate kills New START, is Obama's Russia policy dead, too?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jon Kyl has spoken. The Senate minority whip, emboldened by his party’s midterm election gains, said Tuesday that the Senate shouldn’t vote on the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty this year, likely sealing the fate of what would have been the signature foreign-policy accomplishment of U.S. President Barack Obama’s first two years in the White House. If the Senate doesn’t attempt a vote before the end of the year, the treaty’s odds of passing will be even longer come January, with a thinner Democratic majority and a Republican minority that mostly agrees with Kyl; the prospect is now very real that New START will be consigned to the diplomatic scrap heap.

If this looks bad from Washington, it looks worse from Moscow. Kyl isn’t just imperiling Obama’s arms-reduction ambitions — he’s also diminishing the American president’s credibility abroad. And in the eyes of Russia’s leaders, he’s casting into doubt the United States’ commitment to fixing its relationship with Russia.

To the Kremlin, New START’s apparent demise may well mean the end of an arms-control agenda that seemed on the verge of resuscitation by Obama after suffering clinical death at the hands of George W. Bush. Arms-control agreements gave Russia a sense of security in the post-Cold War era, when the former superpower was struggling to define itself in the shadow of a militarily superior United States. The agreements allowed Russian leaders to claim strategic equality with the United States, holding on to a small measure of great-power status. That came to an end in 2002, when Bush pulled out of the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

That the Bush-era policy of zero arms control is suddenly poised to make a comeback is definitely bad news — not just for arms control, but for the entire U.S.-Russia relationship. Both President Dmitry Medvedev (overtly) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (covertly) have invested a great deal in a new relationship with the United States and, in the run-up to NATO’s Lisbon summit this weekend, hoped for a similar “reset” with that organization. Now the hard-liners in Russia who argued that Obama’s charm offensive was but a brief interlude in an otherwise hegemonic U.S. foreign policy will see their views vindicated by the START debacle. Those who doubt the wisdom of cooperation with the United States and NATO on missile defense will speak with more confidence. Russian strategists will see U.S. missile defense efforts in more confrontational terms. Instead of thinking about coordinating defenses with the United States, they will resume thinking about how to defend Russia from the United States. “The future of the reset process which implies the development of a partnership on security issues depends on the ratification of the treaty in one way or another,” Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council of Russia’s international affairs committee, told the Interfax news agency.

The Kremlin, however, knows enough about U.S. politics to know that Obama isn’t the problem. As long as he’s in the White House, Russian leaders will consider the reset halted, but not reversed. New START, after all, was a symbol of the reset, not the heart of it. For Moscow, Obama’s most important — and welcome — decision to date has been to end his predecessor’s efforts to roll back Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia has been put on hold. Arming Georgia has largely stopped. And Obama has scrapped Bush’s Russia-centric missile-defense plans, with their radar and interceptor installations in the Czech Republic and Poland, in favor of a system designed to thwart potential threats from Iran. It was the unilateral and unconditional removal of these three irritants by Obama that gave the new U.S. president credibility in Moscow’s eyes. As long as these issues are not revisited, the new cooperative relationship between Russia and the United States has every chance of continuing, albeit with new, more stringent limits.

Conversely, a material change in Washington’s approach to any one of these points of contention would end the U.S.-Russia strategic cooperation — a cooperation that is much more substantial and important than the United States’ Russia hawks realize. Russia has allowed U.S. and NATO military transit through its territory and airspace, maintaining a vital northern supply route to Afghanistan. Moscow pleasantly surprised U.S. officials in September by not just supporting a new U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran, but annulling its sale of an air defense system to the country — a decision that was controversial domestically in Russia. Moscow is unlikely to retaliate for New START’s collapse by reversing itself on these goodwill gestures, but further cooperation will come at a higher price.

For now, the Russian leadership is keeping its cool. It does not want to appear panicky, so as to maintain the appearance that Washington needs the treaty as much as Moscow. U.S. politics being fluid, the foreign ministry has expressed a hope that New START may yet be ratified. It is not a given that Obama will be a one-term president, and as long as he is in the White House he remains a partner, even if his political stock has gone down.

Still, there is no denying that the next couple of years will be a difficult time in U.S.-Russia relations, even if they aren’t a throwback to the late Bush years. The change in the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee from Democrat Howard Berman to the hawkish Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will be very noticeable. There will certainly be more criticism on the Hill of Russian domestic practices, and probably fewer congressional contacts with the Russian Duma.

For now, Russia — along with other countries watching the nuclear-treaty negotiations from the sidelines — has learned a valuable lesson about U.S. domestic politics. Partisanship in Washington has reached a new level, infecting not just longstanding domestic-policy disputes, but also foreign policy and national security issues. There was nothing anti-Russian in Kyl’s move — it was purely anti-Obama. To that end, he succeeded: The United States’ allies and enemies abroad will probably pay more attention to the foreign-policy players in Congress and hold the president in somewhat lesser esteem.

Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.