Surprise: Russian Duma To Codify Missile Defense Language in New START

Posted: Jan 03, 2011 5:07 PM
Many opponents of the New START treaty with Russia argued that a significant disconnect between the two parties over defensive weapons systems should have scotched, or at least delayed, ratification.  The Obama administration and Senate Democrats managed to convince 13 Republicans that any language in the treaty's preamble discussing missile defense was ancillary and not legally binding, clearing the path for a 71-26 ratification vote on the lame duck Congress' final day in session.

The lower house of the Russian Duma has now taken up New START, and -- surprise! -- they're insisting that limits on US missile defense capabilities are a central element to the treaty:

The State Duma plans to confirm the link between the reduction of the strategic offensive arms and the restriction of antimissile defense systems’ deployment in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed between the US and Russia, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma Committee on International Affairs says.

"During the ratification of START in the US Congress the American lawmakers noted that the link between strategic offensive armed forces and antimissile defense systems is not juridically binding for the parties. They referred to the fact that this link was fixed only in the preamble of the document. Such an approach can be regarded as the US’ attempt to find an option to build up its strategic potential and the Russian lawmakers cannot agree with this," Kosachev says.

We will deal with these interpretations. The first thing is that our American colleagues do not recognize the legal force of the treaty’s preamble. The preamble sets a link between strategic offensive arms and defensive arms. The second thing is an attempt to interpret certain provisions of the treaty unilaterally.

The Russian lawmakers insist that all the chapters of the treaty including the preamble are legally binding, which is a common norm of international law. It is not lawful to take certain provisions and to give them unilateral interpretations like the American senators do, Alexei Arbatov, a member of the Carnegie Scientific Council, says.

This is our reaction on the US steps, which are not justified because you cannot selectively validate or invalidate certain provisions of the treaty. We are quite consistent here. We said that the entire treaty, the preamble and the articles have the same judicial force. This is logical and this is right.

This development vindicates START critics' concerns about the accord and represents an outright embarrassment for the Obama Administration.  The Russians are (again) asserting as non-negotiable the precise treaty interpretation that the White House assured wavering Senators they had no reason to fear.  This very question was the subject of hours of debate on the Senate floor, when START quarterback Sen. John Kerry repeatedly intoned that the preamble's missile defense language was meaningless.  It's now abundantly clear that the pesky passage was far from the "throwaway" paragraph Kerry vowed it was, and that Moscow won't honor America's toothless opposition to the handful of troublesome sentences.  From the Russian perspective, those few words are a central pillar of the agreement's overall attractiveness. 

The Obama Administration was either grossly incompetent and clueless in its negotiating process, or it was deliberately misconstruing the motives and assumptions of its negotiating partner in the name of securing a domestic political victory.  In light of the White House's continued refusal to release negotiating records -- and reports like this -- the latter option is the safer assumption.

If the Duma makes any alteration whatsoever to the treaty, it must bounce back to the Senate for another ratification vote -- where six new Republican votes could either kill it, or alter it further and force a renegotiation.  As Ed Morrissey writes, either way, the president's credibility has taken a big hit:

[The White House] will have been publicly caught arguing one thing to the Senate while apparently agreeing to its opposite with Russia.  The next time Obama brings a treaty of any consequence and controversy to the Senate, don’t expect the Senate to just accept Obama’s word …. and don’t expect it to pass ratification, either.