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US-Russian START Treaty: A Comprehensive Flicker

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The US administration is preening itself on finally clinching a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, President Barack Obama calling it "the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades". It is to be signed in Prague 8 April, where Obama launched his campaign for a nuclear weapons-free world a year ago, and which was supposed to get a US missile defence base. Obama axed this, at least for the moment, to mollify the Russians.

Despite it being the only flicker of peacefulness out of Washington "in nearly two decades", the reaction in the US is one of indifference or hostility as the right now latches on to each and every Obama initiative to show its displeasure over healthcare and other Obama-inspired liberal policies.

In Russia the reaction is sullen caution and hostility. Obama's announcement was greeted officially only by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who warned that Russia reserved the right to withdraw from the treaty if it deems American missile defenses a threat. Yes, Obama backed down a bit on the original Bush bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. But then all of a sudden, out of the wild blue yonder, Romania and Bulgaria said they would be getting them instead by 2015, and Poland invited the US to station troops there on a new base. What a coincidence. Despite the last minute addition of a few words as a sop to the Russians, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Ellen Tauscher was quick to emphasize there would be "no constraints" on the expansion of interceptor missile deployments.

It will replace the 1991 accord which expired last December and looked like it would not be renewed at all, with growing alarm in Russia over the rapidly developing US missile defense system around the world, which looks very much like a US/NATO strategy to intimidate Russia rather than their supposed target Iran. The number of deployed strategic warheads will be reduced by 30 per cent to 1,550 and launchers by half to 800 on each side.

In a pointed jab at all the present and wannabe nuclear-armed nations, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Obama declaimed: "We call on other nuclear powers to follow the example of Russia and the United States and start reducing their nuclear arsenals." The accord at least sends a positive message to members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), at present on the skids, that Obama's hope to rid the world of nuclear weapons is sincere. Britain and France, Iran and North Korea, Pakistan and India, but most of all Israel -- take note: Russia and the US are on track for once. And after last week's suicide bombing in Moscow, the two leaders may find common cause on non-nuclear terrorism as well, pushing them towards firmer joint action on certain other sources of terrorism.

Whether the Senate will ratify the treaty -- a two-thirds majority is required -- is a moot point. Already Republican Senator John Kyl wrote Obama that that is unlikely if there is even a mention of the "m d" words. However, Obama can hide behind words of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen: "Through the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States." The White House has yet to release the actual "m d" wording. In any case, we have peacenik Ellen's word of honour that the US can still circle the globe with its bases.

Whether the Russian Duma will ratify it is also not clear. Emphasising its importance to the future of the NPT, Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign affairs commission, said, "It's very important to have this deal, because it sets an example for other countries." General Nikolai Makarov, the chief of Russia's general staff, also spoke in favour of the pact, saying it "will eliminate concerns on both sides and is fully in line with the security interests of Russia." With his usual deadpan humour, Lavrov stated, "Nothing in this treaty contains clauses which would make it easier for the US to develop a missile shield which would pose a risk to Russia."

But though Makarov supported Medvedev on the treaty, he also warned: "If the Americans continue to expand their missile defences, they will certainly target our nuclear capability and in this case the balance of forces will shift in favour of the United States." This is in line with the Duma's resolution last month threatening not to ratify it. Says Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the State Duma committee for international relations, "If the connection between the strategic arms reduction treaty and missile defence is not exhaustively fixed by the sides in preparing the treaty this would automatically create obstacles for subsequent ratification," he added.

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)

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