Remember back in October and November, when the Russians and the Americans confidently declared that they would conclude negotiations on a new strategic weapons treaty in time for the expiration of Start I on 5 December, 2005? That date came and went, but again both sides said that things were on track to reach an agreement soon.
Not so fast. Today Putin dropped this bomb (pun very much intended):
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said U.S. plans for a missile defence system were hindering talks on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty.
Speaking to reporters in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, Putin said U.S. plans for the missile shield in Europe would destroy the strategic balance between the United States and Russia.
“In order to preserve balance… we need to develop offensive weapons systems,” Putin said. He added that Russia wanted access to more information on U.S. missile defence plans and would link such a demand with the new nuclear treaty.
Classic, classic Soviet negotiating gambit. As negotiations reach their climax, and expectations for a new deal are very high, throw in a completely new issue. Can’t have a “balance” if one side has an operative defensive system and the other doesn’t. Cutting weapons would actually enhance the power of a defensive system and thereby undermine the balance further.
So . . . it is a clear implication of Putin’s statement that no new strategic weapon deal is possible while the American defensive system to replace the one that Obama terminated is under development. Putin is clearly saying that no nuclear weapons reduction deal is possible unless the US kills its defensive systems.
This puts Obama in an extremely awkward position–which was no doubt Putin’s objective. Make Obama choose between something he desperately, and dreamily, wants–a nuke treaty with the Russians–and something that he is viscerally opposed to–BMD. All at a time when Obama’s political position on security issues is extremely shaky. Off the top of my head, a list that could be greatly expanded: the earlier unilateral concession on the Eastern European missile defense system, the diffident and frankly disgusting approach to Iran, Fort Hood, Afghanistan, and now terrorism in the aftermath of the Detroit attack. No doubt Putin has viewed this litany of demonstrations of weakness and cluelessness with glee, and is betting that he has taken Obama’s measure: and his bet is that Obama will cave.
But, it could work the other way. With his entire national security policy under assault, Obama may conclude that another concession in the face of a neo-Soviet negotiating stunt will utterly destroy his credibility on any security issue, particularly given how arrogantly he touted the superiority of the Aegis-based system in the aftermath of his precipitate abandonment of the Czech and Polish ABM sites. As a result, he may conclude that he has to stand up to Putin on this matter, treaty be damned.
Given Obama’s unmistakable personal preferences (e.g., his overall distaste for security issues, and his Pavlovian tendency to concede rather than fight), Putin may be quite correct in his wager. From his perspective, it is certainly worth playing this gambit, because if he is right he wins on a major issue for him and the Russian security establishment, but even if Obama plays against type Putin is no worse off than he was before playing it.
My main question is whether anybody on our negotiating team, in the State Department, the DoD, or the White House is surprised by this. If they are, they are utterly unqualified for their positions. It will be quite telling to see how–and if–the administration responds to Putin’s gambit.