Green shoots in bid for nuclear disarmament


THE TALK is all of nuclear disarmament. This year is supposed be the year of disarmament, with important work on at least three, maybe four, treaties, and progress on Iran and North Korea. Indeed, the prospects of agreeing in the early new year the first part of this complex jigsaw, a follow-up Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start), are good, according to both Washington and Moscow, writes PATRICK SMYTH

Whatever the talk, however, the underlying language and logic remain those of Cold War politics, a combination of mutual distrust and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction – the idea that the best defence consists in convincing certainty not of defeat but annihilation of the one to throw the first punch.

There had been hope that presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev would within weeks seal the final elements of a Start deal to commit the US and Russia to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to roughly 1,600, from 2,200, and for each to reduce its strategic bombers and land- and sea-based missiles by half to below 800.

But then, earlier this week, prime minister Vladimir Putin muddied the waters by insisting talks should encompass not just offensive but defensive weapons.

In October, Obama had cleared the way for Start by agreeing to shelve Bush missile defence system sites in Poland and the Czech Republic in favour of smaller ship-based interceptors that might later be positioned on land in Europe. But the decision to modify rather than scrap the system left the Russians frustrated at what they see as an ongoing insistence on viewing Russia as a potential threat. Not so, says Washington – our concern is Iran and North Korea.

Unconvinced, Putin argues the US stance requires Russia to respond in kind: “If we are not developing an anti-missile shield, then there is a danger that our partners, by creating such ‘an umbrella’, will feel completely secure and thus can allow themselves to do what they want, disrupting the balance, and aggressiveness will rise immediately.

“In order to preserve balance . . . we need to develop offensive weapons systems,” he insists. Moscow wants more data on the US plans in exchange for details about Russia’s deployed nuclear offensive missiles, but Washington believes such considerations should be part of separate talks.

A major tension arises from the fact that the two are at different stages in strategic military development: Russia is replacing and adding offensive weapons, and the Start follow-up treaty would require it to share data about the testing of new missiles. The US, meanwhile, is under no obligation to share similar details about missile defence.

If, however, the Start deadlock is disposed of, both sides are then set to embark on even more complex discussions: in addition to reducing deployed strategic warheads further, they will try to empty some vaults now storing reserve warheads. The two sides will also try to cut the thousands of tactical nuclear bombs, smaller battlefield nukes, that are most vulnerable to proliferation or theft, some still sited in Europe.

The bilateral efforts are part of a broader effort by Obama to progress towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the transformation of the US’s military. He is due to publish a nuclear review this month.

The tone and progress of current talks will also set the scene for the opening in May of a conference of 189 states to review and update the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The last review in 2005 collapsed after procedural rows, blamed on the US, Iran and Egypt, and the conference is once again likely to reflect all the procedural chaos manifested at the recent Copenhagen summit.

The same divisions are also likely to dominate, with the signatory nuclear powers focusing on tightening obligations on Iran and North Korea, notably by squeezing technology transfers, while the developing nations complain the former have done too little to fulfil their own obligations gradually to disarm.

Many signatories would also like to pressurise non-signatory nuclear powers, Israel, Pakistan and India, to join up and get rid of any warheads they have.

To show good faith ahead of the NPT review, Obama also has to try to put the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) before the Senate against stiff Republican opposition.

Elsewhere, the pressure to curb Iran’s nuclear programme will continue, with observers more confident Russia will back tougher UN sanctions. There are good prospects for reopening six-party talks in Korea.

A crowded and difficult agenda for 2010.