How the U.S.-Russia Rift Leads to a Nuclear Stalemate
Business + Economy

How the U.S.-Russia Rift Leads to a Nuclear Stalemate

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Late Thursday afternoon, reports emerged that President Obama was considering cancelling a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin because of mounting tensions between the two.

Obama is set to meet with other world leaders in St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit before the trip to Moscow, which is scheduled for September.  The decision to visit the Russian capitol was widely seen as a diplomatic victory for Putin, who uses visits from prominent world leaders to showcase his country’s power.


But according to sources within the administration, Obama has grown tired of Putin standing in the way of Washington. Putin has refused to extradite NSA-leaker Snowden, even as he jailed a prominent Russian activist for speaking out against the government Thursday.

Russia has also supplied weapons to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite Assad’s long record of human rights abuses and his ruthless war against his own people. Putin has also allied himself with Tehran at a time when the United States and its allies are attempting to halt Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon.  Russia has also been cozying up to traditional U.S. allies like Germany as energy and business ties have strengthened in recent years.


White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to comment on the possibility of skipping the private meeting with Putin. “I can say that the president intends to travel to Russia for the G-20 summit,” Carney said Thursday. “I don’t have anything to add to what we’ve said in the past about that trip."

But the real danger of the breakdown of U.S.-Russia relations does not lie in high-profile international events. The true threat comes from the deterioration of ongoing negotiations over nuclear and biological weapons reductions.

These talks have been going on since the Cold War and there was widespread hope that they would resume this summer. According to Alexei Fenenko, a leading research fellow at the Institute of International Security Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, progress will be difficult given the current hostility between Washington and Russia.

"Russia and the U.S. seem to have resumed their strategic dialogue by mid-summer. Following the May 7 visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow, the two countries have unblocked arms control talks, which had been suspended in mid-2011," Fenenko wrote Thursday in a post at the Valdai International Discussion Club, an online forum for leading Russian thinkers. "That said, dialogue on [arms control] issues does not seem to be promising." 

Washington and Moscow have been negotiating arms reduction through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) treaty in 1982. By 2001, the United States and Russia, through a series of agreements negotiated within the START framework, were able to reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by both countries by 80 percent.

The treaty is only effective with trust. Monitors verify that a percentage of weapons have ben destroyed. That verification serves as proof that other similar reductions were made at other nuclear, biological and chemical facilities.

But tensions between Moscow and Washington grew during the Bush years and START negotiations broke down. When he was elected president, Obama pledged to revive the process.

This revival, according to the arms control community, was desperately needed. There are still enough weapons of mass destruction in Russia and the United States to wipe out the world’s population many times over. There are also concerns that Russia, in the chaos of the fall of communism, lost track of its weapons, prompting lingering fears that a Russian weapon could be dealt to a terrorist.

Obama made good on his pledge, signing a New START treaty with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in 2010. Obama signed it into law in 2011 and has expressed his desire to reduce nuclear arms in his 2013 State of the Union and in his recent speech in Berlin.

This year, each side was supposed to make verification trips to ensure New START obligations are being met. Right now, it remains unclear it that will occur.

At the same time, opposition to Russia is growing among Republicans, who in recent years have been weary of nuclear reductions. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC.) has already called on the president to cancel his St. Petersburg trip and to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics being held next February in Sochi, a summer resort town in southern Russia.

In his first term, Obama famously said that he wanted to reset relations with Russia after a disastrous run between Putin and Bush. With the White House’s latest threat, it’s now clear that the reset has imploded, putting global security at risk.

“The Kremlin is wary of Barack Obama’s Berlin initiative to reduce strategic nuclear arsenals by one third below New START levels," Fenenko wrote. "Since issues related to arms control account for about 80 percent of the agenda in Russian-U.S. relations, deterioration of this dialogue would mean a de facto breakdown in bilateral relations, whether we like it or not."