Why Blocking the New START Treaty is Dangerous to Russia’s Neighbors

Why Blocking the New START Treaty is Dangerous to Russia's Neighbors

Republican Senator Jon Kyl had been working to approve the New START Treaty with Russia, now he's leading the charge to kill it.

Watching Russian-American relations unfold from the geopolitical tinderbox of the Caucasus, it’s hard not to feel like a flammable bystander in middle of a match fight at times. One of those times is now, as Republican lawmakers, emboldened by their party’s victory in midterm elections, are trying to kill Obama’s New START Treaty with Russia.

The new arms reduction treaty would pick up where previous post-Cold War deescalation treaties with the former Soviet Union left off, pulling back weapons systems from European soil and reducing the numbers of deployed nuclear weapons with mutual inspections to ensure compliance. This same kind of cooperation has produced agreements to put in place radiological detection systems at border posts to prevent illicit trade of nuclear materials and weapons.

State Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher wrote in a Sept. editorial in Politico:

For the past 15 years, our principal arms control agreement with Russia, START [1], has been based on President Ronald Reagan’s guiding principle, “Trust, but verify.”

But START [1], which allowed us to monitor and inspect Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal, expired last December. Now, we have only trust — and that’s not enough in an uncertain world.

Kind of hard to argue with that, right? Wrong.

Despite initially passing the treaty through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Sept., Republicans have now declared they will block it, as it needs a two-thirds (67-vote) majority to pass on the Senate floor, and Democrats will not be able to push it through without significant Republican support. No foreign policy expert thinks blocking it is a good idea from either side of the aisle — former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and former Republican National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, as well as all but one commander of U.S. Strategic Nuclear Command have come out strongly for the treaty.

So why are Senate Republicans suddenly going against the military and party elders? 1.) Because they want to make Obama look bad — and make no mistake, when you make a bilateral agreement with another country that your own government then forces you to take back, it looks bad for the president and the country. And 2.) because the new breed of empowered Republicans want to bring back America’s foreign policy to the golden years of the Bush era, where the U.S. was so self-assured of its own supremacy that there was no need to make concessions or apologies and anyone who did not share this vision was confronted with consequences of various sorts.

There’s no need to look back at the foreign policy triumphs of 2001-2008, I think we all remember what was accomplished.

If the Republicans succeed in blocking START, it will not only open the door to a new East-West arms race, it will set up the potential — and signal their intent — to sink Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia following the NATO summit in Lisbon that showed signs that Russia and the West may be on the cusp of a real rapprochement. Republicans have cited human rights concerns and Russia’s aggressive foreign policy as justification to punish it by not agreeing to this treaty. I am not against holding Russia accountable for its actions, but nullifying a mutual arms reduction treaty would not punish them, it would only punish world stability, which is why foreign governments — including pro-Western, anti-Russian Poland — have issued statements begging the Republicans to ratify it.

The greater trust there is between Washington and Moscow, the less mistrust the Kremlin holds for pro-Western governments on its borders, and the less it sees such governments as Western encroachments in a zero-sum game to take control of Russia’s old neighborhood. This dynamic could not be more potently expressed than in Georgia, where I live.

Georgia has a long history within the Russian orbit, and is a strategic foothold between the Caspian and Black Seas on Russia’s southern flank. While Moscow begrudgingly accepted its loss of influence in most of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990′s, when a Western-backed (and funded) democratic movement came to power in Georgia in 2003, Russia saw a threat. It didn’t help that at the time Bush was lambasting the Kremlin over its opposition to the war in Iraq and failure to embrace Western-style democracy. The Bush administration’s insistence on placing missile interceptors on Russia’s border and recognizing the independence of Kosovo only upped the ante.

Meanwhile, Georgia developed into an modern version of an American client state, with most of its budget coming from international donors, and its military trained and outfitted by the U.S.. With talk of it integrating into the NATO alliance, it was an American proxy in a vulnerable position, and the perfect place for Russia to reassert some pressure in the other direction. In 2006, Russia, Georgia’s biggest trading partner, embargoed it. Russia also continued to egg on Georgia’s two separatist regions, which Georgia has not controlled since 1994, and who have continued to exchange fire with the Georgian military across foggy ceasefire lines for the last 15 years. Eventually, it came to a full blown war in 2008, where intervening Russian forces came to within 15 miles of the capital, and Bush could only reflect on the effectiveness of his posturing, saber-rattling and bluffs.

I arrived in Georgia 10 months after the war, and five months after Obama took office. While there has been little progress on paper since my arrival, the atmosphere is markedly changed. After a period of panic, Georgia has continued to develop economically despite the presence of Russian troops on nearly 20 percent of its internationally recognized territory, and while neither country recognizes the other diplomatically, there is no impending fear the war might start up again. Furthermore, both Georgian and Russian troops are participating in NATO’s security mission in Afghanistan. In general, as U.S. foreign policy has shifted to one that is seeking common ground with Russia, the simmering conflict has cooled to an uncomfortable, yet stable status quo. This week, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili felt tensions had abated enough to announce his intention to sign a non-use of force agreement with Russia and the separatists in order to resolve the conflict.

While Georgia may be the most extreme case, it is not the only contentious square on the geopolitical chessboard — there are several wounds that could be reopened should Russian-American relations plummet again — and Republicans should remember that Congressional games affect far more than political careers; on issues like this they are literally matters of life and death.

Nicholas Clayton lives in Tbilisi, Georgia and is the senior editor of Kanal PIK TV’s English Service. Having studied NATO-Russian relations at Hertzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia in 20 ...read more

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