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Outmaneuvering Obama: Russia's Crafty Weapons Cuts

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In chess, a player will sometimes sacrifice some pawns as part of a grand strategy to compromise an opponent’s defenses. Pawns are relatively unimportant pieces, so it’s a good way to get something for virtually nothing.

Russia’s leaders are, apparently, skilled chess players.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama visited Moscow and signed a preliminary agreement aimed at getting both countries to reduce their nuclear and conventional weapons systems. But the Russians are playing a clever game. The “cuts” they propose wouldn’t actually affect their defenses at all.

Obama has promised that the U.S. will reduce its number of strategic force launchers --the systems that deliver both nuclear and conventional weapons -- to between 500 and 1,100 (the U.S. is permitted 1,600 launchers under a current treaty). Moscow matched that commitment, but that’s not saying much, since the number of Russian weapons is going to plummet with or without a treaty.

“By 2017-2018 Russia will likely have fewer than half of the approximately 680 operational launchers it has today,” arms control expert Keith Payne recently testified before Congress. “With a gross domestic product less than that of California, Russia is confronting the dilemma of how to maintain parity with the U.S. while retiring its many aged strategic forces.” One way, of course, is to sacrifice some pawns -- the non-existent or inoperable weapons -- to take out vital American weapons.

In short, the Russians agreed to “cut” weapons they were going to have to retire anyway.

The Russians haven’t made their declining stockpiles much of a secret. Payne notes that Nikolay Solovtsov, the man in charge of Russian missiles, recently told Moscow Interfax-AVN Online that “not a single Russian launcher” with “remaining service life” would be withdrawn under the agreement reached with Russian leaders.

Obama looks to have been played by Moscow.

The president also agreed to a new limit on operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads. He intends to reduce our arsenal to between 1,500 and 1,675 such weapons. But the timing is odd, since the administration hasn’t yet completed its Nuclear Posture Review. It would make sense to get those results, which are supposed to let policymakers know how many nuclear weapons our country needs, before agreeing to any cuts.

That leads directly to another concern: the haste with which the agreement was reached. Obama wants the deal ratified before December, when the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) expires. But what’s the hurry?

In addition to the nuclear review, the administration is conducting a complete survey to determine what weapons systems the U.S. needs and how many people our military will require in the years ahead. That’s a smart thing for a new presidential team to do. But why agree to any reductions before this review is finished?

It’s not as if either side plans to build thousands of new nuclear weapons this year, anyway. The Russians already have fewer missiles than they’re allowed. Even if START I expires and isn’t replaced with a START follow-on agreement for a year or two, the geopolitical power picture will remain unchanged. This is because, among other things, another agreement known as the Moscow Treaty requires both sides to work toward no more than 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

“Russian leaders hope to control or eliminate many elements of U.S. military power in exchange for strategic force reductions they will have to make anyway” Payne concludes. “U.S. leaders should not agree to pay Russia many times over for essentially an empty box.”

Before it can take effect, a START follow-on agreement, like all treaties, requires Senate approval. Let’s hope some senators question the wisdom of giving up valuable American weapon systems to get rid of crumbling Russian ones.

This agreement needs to go back to the drawing board. Anything less could checkmate our defenses.

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