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Good News on START?

I'm happy to be proven wrong when a pessimistic prediction is transformed by good news. As people are well aware, I was not optimistic about the progress (or rather, lack of progress) in nuclear arms talks between Russia and the United States. What seemed to be a "no-brainer"--after all, presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev had reached a "memorandum of understanding" outlining the shape of a new arms control agreement at the Moscow summit last summer--took a turn for the worst as one issue after another kept popping up, preventing a new treaty from being finalized before the original START agreement expired in December.
Reports that the logjam over the START Treaty has finally been broken--and that Obama and Medvedev will be able to sign a document in Prague next month--suggest that both sides saw the U.S. -Russia relationship deteriorating even further without some concrete measure of success. It also means that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Moscow, convinced the Russian leadership that holding out for treaty language that had no chance of surviving once submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification would serve no one's interests.
So what do we have? Based on preliminary reports, the Russians will get language that recognizes that there are important linkages between offensive and defensive systems--acknowledging their concerns over how U.S. missile defense systems could impact the strategic balance--but that language is nonbinding, and does not prevent Washington from moving ahead, if it so chooses, with plans to deploy limited BMD systems in the Black Sea region. Both sides will have an upper limit of 1,675 warheads and may shoot for an even lower number of delivery vehicles than originally outlined in last year's MOU--from 1100 to an upper limit of 800. Some of the Russian reductions are likely to occur from attrition and the retirement of aged systems. This will test the willingness of the Senate to accept a compromise, because it has been argued that Russia would have "no choice" but to bring down the size of its nuclear arsenal, to a size it can more effectively maintained--but now Russia will get binding limits on the size of the U.S. arsenal as well.
A renewed Russian interest in getting the treaty moving forward may be related to problems in getting the Bulava missile into service and ensuring that it can be successfully launched from the new Borey-class submarines (such as the Yuri Dolgoruky). In the absence of a new treaty that would put some limits on America's ability to regenerate its nuclear force, uncertainties about the future of a key part of Russia's deterrent capability may have strengthened the hand of those calling for compromise on finalizing the START language. For its part, the lifting of U.S. sanctions that had been imposed against the Russian aerospace firm Glavkosmos (initially imposed in 1998 for its previous dealings with Iran) was also a symbolic gesture on Washington's part of wanting to improve ties.
We still need to hear from some key stakeholders in both Moscow and Washington--the reaction from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as well as the response of key members of the U.S. Senate who were expressing skepticism as to the utility of a new agreement--but progress on START may represent the first "fruits" of the reset.

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