By Christian Neef
There is good news on the disarmament front: US President Barack Obama is fine-tuning a new nuclear strategy. As White House officials said last week during a meeting between Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he plans to reach a decision by April. The new strategy could include the scrapping of "thousands of nuclear weapons," and even a commitment by the United States not to develop any new nuclear weapons.
In addition, what may be the final round of Russian-American talks on the further reduction of strategic offensive weapons started on Tuesday in Geneva. The successor for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is "almost 100 percent complete," says a Moscow negotiator. "We have agreed on the number of launch systems and the warheads, as well as the inspection and destruction of the nuclear payloads. All problems have been solved."
So much optimism has rarely been seen in Moscow and Washington, particularly when it comes to the two countries' arsenals of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, though, the elation is not genuine. The idea that the world can become a planet free of nuclear weapons one day -- as promised by Obama in his visionary speech last year in Prague -- remains a fallacy for the time being.
And the new treaty won't change that. Even if Russia and the US finally put aside their decades of hostility during the Cold War and sign a treaty outlining the further reduction of their nuclear arsenals, their behind-the-scenes relationship is, once again, characterized by deep mistrust -- perhaps even more so than during the administration of the abrasive former US president, George W. Bush.
The Russians, in particular, feel that they are once again being misled. They may believe that man now in the Oval Office has honorable intentions, but they do not believe he is capable of reversing his country's position on nuclear weapons, says Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center. According to Trenin, the biggest anti-Russia skeptics have retained key posts in Obama's administration. For the Russians, this is clearly reflected in Washington's plans to develop new missile defense systems around the world.
The plan was presented on Feb. 1 -- only a few months after the US had decided not to install a comparable system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Now the United States wants to develop a missile defense system to protect European members of NATO. There are to be four stages, with a scheduled completion date of 2020. At first, SM-3 missiles, which are designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles outside the earth's atmosphere, will be stationed on ships in the Mediterranean. In a second phase, ground-launched missiles with corresponding radar systems will be installed in southeastern European countries. After that, similar systems will be installed in northern Europe, followed by intercept devices designed, in particular, to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles coming from the Middle East and targeting the United States.
The document remains vague and does not specify the countries in which the systems would be based. But it was already revealed earlier that Romania had agreed to accept American SM-3 missiles, and neighboring Bulgaria is also open to such plans. "We have to demonstrate solidarity," said Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, by way of justification.
'New Weapons System'
"They have jettisoned Poland and the Czech Republic, which they portray as a major concession," says Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow's ambassador to NATO in Brussels. "But this plan presents us with even greater challenges. Our military will react with a new weapons system."
This doesn't sound like disarmament. But why should Russia be concerned about a defense system officially aimed at missiles from rogue states like Iran and North Korea?
First, because there is an imbalance between the Russians and the Americans in the development of their respective strategic armed forces. Moscow is still focusing on the expansion and renewal of its offensive weapons. Washington, on the other hand, is no longer developing any new nuclear offensive systems, instead concentrating on expanding the missile shield.
Under the rules of the START treaty, which expired last December, the Russians were required to routinely furnish Washington with technical data on new missile tests. As a result, the Americans are relatively well informed about Moscow's missile capabilities. But nowhere was it stipulated that either party had to provide the other side with details on the development of a missile defense system. The Russian military, therefore, knows next to nothing about its rival's capabilities.
Nothing Has Happened
"It is clear to us that missile defense is an extremely sensitive issue in Russian-American relations," concedes John Beyrle, Washington's ambassador in Moscow. Indeed, in recognition of that sensitivity, Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev agreed last year that Russians and Americans would conduct a joint analysis on which world regions are potentially threatened by missiles from a rogue state and, therefore, where the development of missile defense would make sense.
But nothing has happened -- Washington appears to be dragging its feet. "There is nothing but stubborn silence on the other side," Russian NATO Ambassador Rogozin told SPIEGEL. "The Americans are avoiding dialogue." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said angrily that he instructed the Russian ambassador in Washington to find out "how to interpret all of this, and what is behind the Romanian and the Bulgarian surprise."
The Kremlin -- and this is the second reason behind Russia's agitation -- doesn't believe Washington's claim that the planned defensive missiles on Russia's western flank would only serve as a protection against Iran. "This is where the White House's age-old plan to suffocate our strategic armed forces and destroy our own intercontinental missiles, directly after START, is being implemented," say military experts in Moscow. They insist that Russia is being surrounded by an "anti-missile fence" that will provide the Americans with one-sided superiority.
Moscow sees its nuclear second-strike capability threatened, and it believes that it would hardly be able to react in the event of an attack. This would render its nuclear deterrent capability worthless -- yet another humiliation for the major power in the East.
The problem of American missile defense has to be closely tied to that of Russian offensive weapons, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in a recent speech in the Pacific coastal city of Vladivostok. If Russia did nothing to oppose the missile defense system, he added, the other side would "feel completely safe under its missile shield, and it would do as it pleased. The balance would be gone, and aggression in politics and business would grow abruptly." Putin's conclusion is that "Russia needs new offensive systems."
This is no easy task for Moscow's military leaders. Russian NATO Ambassador Rogozin fears that the American missile ships "operating in the Mediterranean and the Arctic Ocean in the future will be more difficult to pursue and hard to pinpoint."
Russia's presumed counter-weapon is called "Jars," and military leaders in Moscow have already announced its deployment. It could be a further development of the Topol-M ICBM (known as the SS-27 in NATO code), with which Moscow is now furnishing its strategic armed forces. Unlike the Topol, which only contains a nuclear payload, the Jars can release up to 10 warheads, which can head for different targets independently of each other. This makes it more difficult to destroy them. But why Russia declared the Jars as its new miracle weapon some time ago remains a mystery. Was the more recent upgrade planned for much earlier? Does it have anything at all to do with the US plans?
It is doubtful, however, that the Kremlin is spending enough money to bring its already deficient missile units up to date. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that Russia places great stock in diplomacy -- and in the new arms reduction treaty.
Although the details have already been worked out, the treaty is still not ready to be signed. The Kremlin wants it to include a ban on the further expansion of missile defense.
Russia in NATO?
The Russian parliament is threatening to not ratify the treaty if the US refuses to agree to such a ban. Should that happen, the carefully conceived plan of radical disarmament would be discarded before it even gained momentum -- and the next crisis of confidence between the world's leading nuclear powers will have begun.
Given such circumstances, the proposal by former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe and three other military and political leaders comes at an opportune time. According to Rühe, the basis for the Russians' feeling of being threatened by the West should be eliminated once and for all. The only solution, he says, is to bring Moscow into NATO. For Rühe, trust can only be established if Americans and Europeans finally put their cards on the table when dealing with the Russians.
Rühe's appeal sounds surprising, and yet it makes sense from a European perspective. There is only one hitch: Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has always dismissed the notion of a Russian NATO membership as a "fantasy." He also doesn't believe that Washington would go along with the idea. However, Moscow's position doesn't have to be written in stone.
Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton and currently involved in the development of a new NATO strategic concept, has only nurtured Lavrov's skepticism. Washington, she says, will never allow Russia to influence NATO strategy: "We will not allow the tail to wag the dog."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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