US-Russian 'reset' in trouble as nuke pact stalls

Is the reset on the rocks?

Rumblings in Washington by the resurgent Republican Party against Senate ratification of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty raise doubts about a fragile U.S.-Russian rapprochement — the "reset" that has been a centerpiece of President Obama's diplomacy.

An unraveling of ties, which hit post-Cold War lows during the administration of George W. Bush, would erode global stability at a time of burgeoning security threats and harm international efforts to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

New START bolstered mutual trust, helping Washington win crucial Kremlin backing for a new set of sanctions against Iran and stronger support for the war in Afghanistan.

"The failure to ratify the treaty will deal a very painful blow to Obama's administration and the policy of 'reset,'" said Sergei Rogov, head of the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a top think-tank advising the government on foreign policy.

If "the administration can't deliver what it promised, it would seriously undermine Obama's position in the international arena."

The Russian Foreign Ministry sought to play down a statement from Sen. Jon Kyl, a leading Republican, who spoke against holding a ratification vote this year. But it warned that the process should go forward in both countries at the same time.

Obama on Thursday urged the Senate to ratify the treaty, appearing at the White House with former secretaries of state and defense of both parties who all support it.

"This is not about politics," he said. "It's about national security."

Some Kremlin-connected legislators and political pundits said Senate failure to ratify the agreement would likely push Moscow to rethink its relationship with the United States.

Mikhail Margelov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said Moscow may reconsider its stance on Iran and Afghanistan if the treaty fails.

"We should agree with Vice President Joe Biden who fears that due to procrastinations with the ratification, the United States may lose Moscow's vital support in tackling the problem of Iran and in the war in Afghanistan," Margelov was quoted in Russian news reports as saying. "The continuation of 'reset' that envisages the development of partnership on security issues hinges on the treaty's ratification."

Moscow backed the latest set of U.N. sanctions against Iran in June and later shelved a 2007 contract to supply Iran with sophisticated S-300 air defense missile systems that drew strong U.S. and Israeli concerns. The moves angered Tehran, which accused Moscow of kowtowing to the West.

The Kremlin also has offered stronger support for NATO operations in Afghanistan, allowing the alliance to carry supplies across the Russian territory. A Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon this weekend is expected to see the signing of a new deal on the so-called "reverse" transit that would allow NATO to ship cargo back from Afghanistan.

Rogov said Russia would be unlikely to backtrack on its moves regarding Iran and Afghanistan, even if the Senate fails to seal the arms deal, but that it would close the door to any further friendly action.

"It's not that we will turn back, but any further moves toward cooperation will be unlikely," he told The Associated Press.

Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, said Russia will continue to cooperate with Obama, but show more caution. "The relations will be stable and businesslike, but limited in depth and scope," he said.

The nuclear arms deal signed in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would reduce strategic warheads to 1,550 for each country from the current ceiling of 2,200 and restore onsite inspections and other verification measures that ceased when the previous START treaty expired nearly a year ago.

Trenin said that the unraveling of arms control would erode stability.

"It's always dangerous to have nuclear arsenals of two major powers develop without proper information exchange," he said. "That would reduce the level of predictability."

Rogov warned that the termination of inspections would prompt each country to overestimate the other's potential, as happened during the Cold War. "If on-the-ground inspections aren't restored, both the U.S. and Russia will have to proceed from the worst-case scenario as they did before the first arms control agreements were reached in the early 1970s," he said.

Rogov and other observers also warned that failure to put New START into force would ruin hopes for global nuclear disarmament and encourage the spread of atomic weapons.

"The world is no longer bipolar, and the collapse of the U.S.-Russian arms control mechanism will turn the multipolar world into multipolar chaos, as no one else would be able to persuade other nuclear powers to accept at least some rules of the game," Rogov said. "The consequences of the New START collapse could be extremely grave."

Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies that includes some of Russia's top political and military analysts, said that if the treaty fails in the Senate, Obama and Medvedev might agree to implement its provisions by executive orders. He added, however, that many in Russian officialdom would likely oppose that, arguing it would make no sense to fulfill the deal at a time when the U.S. policy may change soon.

Some said the arms treaty's collapse would play into the hands of hawks in the Russian government and weaken Medvedev, who has pushed for better ties with the U.S.

"It will raise doubts about the 'reset' and undermine positions of Medvedev who placed his bets on that," said Sergei Markov, a leading lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.