Obama in Russia: Good Start or False Start?

Yesterday Presidents Obama and Medvedev called for sharp reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons in each of their countries arsenals:

July 6 (Bloomberg) — U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev called for a reduction of their nuclear arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads and between 500 and 1,100 delivery vehicles, according to a “joint understanding” reached today in Moscow.

Under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December, and a 2002 Moscow agreement the maximum allowable number of warheads is 2,200 and the maximum number of launch vehicles is 1,600, according to the document.

There are apparently differences of opinion on the wisdom of this move. In an editorial this morning the LA Times hails it:

The agreement of the two presidents to cut deployed nuclear warheads from the range of 1,700-2,200 each to 1,500-1,675 each, and to reduce delivery systems, sets the stage for negotiations to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expires in December. This is a far more modest goal than we would have liked, but perhaps the numbers are less important than the goal itself. The two sides renewed their commitment to pursuing nuclear arms reduction, and that’s what matters.

while professor of defense and strategic studies Keith Payne is more skeptical:

In the first place, locking in specific reductions for U.S. forces prior to the conclusion of the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review is putting the cart before the horse. The Obama administration’s team at the Pentagon is currently examining U.S. strategic force requirements. Before specific limits are set on U.S. forces, it should complete the review. Strategic requirements should drive force numbers; arms-control numbers should not dictate strategy.

Second, the new agreement not only calls for reductions in the number of nuclear warheads (to between 1,500 and 1,675), but for cuts in the number of strategic force launchers. Under the 1991 START I Treaty, each side was limited to 1,600 launchers. Yesterday’s agreement calls for each side to be limited to between 500 and 1,100 launchers each.

According to open Russian sources, it was Russia that pushed for the lower limit of 500 launchers in negotiations. In the weeks leading up to this summit, it also has been openly stated that Moscow would like the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched missiles (SLBMS), and strategic bombers to be reduced “several times” below the current limit of 1,600. Moving toward very low numbers of launchers is a smart position for Russia, but not for the U.S.

I’ll hold my water until we can take the Senate’s temperature on this issue. Recall Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. The president makes treaties but two-thirds of Senate must concur. Any number of treaties negotiated and signed by presidents have languished for lack of the Senate’s support.

UPDATE (James Joyner): I add my two cents’ worth at New Atlanticist:  “Russia Summit Achieves Little, As Expected.”  The upshot:

Ultimately, then, the two men practiced classic Realpolitik, foregoing public talks about irreconcilable differences while striving to make some advances in areas of mutual interest.   That, frankly, falls far short of a “reset” in the relationship that the Obama administration has been touting.  But it not nothing.

More at the link.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Furhead says:

    Strategic requirements should drive force numbers; arms-control numbers should not dictate strategy.

    Arms control and strategy aren’t completely separate things. It may be, for example, that we want less nuclear material floating around in unstable portions of the world. Of course, Russia is a bit more stable these days than during the breakup of the USSR.

    As it is, we both could pretty much destroy the world several times over, right? This may be a dumb question, but what strategic requirement is needed to destroy the world more than once? (Yes, I realize that some presumably small fraction of the arsenal could be destroyed in an attack before we were able to launch it.)

  2. Boyd says:

    Warheads and delivery vehicles aren’t plug-and-play; there are different models to suit different purposes, and that necessitates some redundancy.

  3. I would hate to find that we needed to obliterate, say, 1300 enemy military targets or cities and there we are stuck with just 1000 warheads. That would suck.

    I mean, reverse the situation. We have 273 cities with populations of over 100,000. How would the Russians feel if they could only destroy our 273 largest cities and 727 military targets? We’d be sitting here laughing!

    Well, not here. But if we lived in Johnson City, TN, we’d be like, “That’s all you got?”

  4. I doubt that we can destroy the world even if we wanted to, but that’s a quibble for another time. But your supposition seems to infer that destroying the world is on the list of potential objectives, which is kind of weird. I cannot envision any scenario on either side that calls for launching all weapons. Ever. But I digress.

    Further to Boyd’s comment, the different platforms (ground, air, sea) for deployment mean there has to be some level of redundancy in addition to rotation and “sparing”. As I recall, the warheards themselves must be refurbished periodically.

    Perhaps now is a good time as any to remind our young president of Ronald Reagan’s maxim, “Trust, but verify.”

  5. Steve Hynd says:

    I’d think that if the strategy is to avoid worldwide nuclear holocaust then arms control numbers are a perfect metric to use to drive that strategy. Payne obviously doesn’t care about sane strategy so much as that the U.S. shouldn’t give something away for nothing. It’s a ridiculous posture to take. So what if the Russians end up with a treaty to do what they were going to have to do anyway? We all end up safer by both sides’ reductions and their agreement that such reductions are a good thing.

    But Payne, the leader of the neoconservative National Institute for Public Policy which has been a staunch cheerleader for Bush’s missile defense plans and replacement warhead program, is more interested in might makes right than in the safety of humanity. He argued in 1980 that the “United States must possess the ability to wage nuclear war rationally” and that “the West needs to devise ways in which it can employ strategic nuclear forces coercively, while minimizing the potentially paralyzing impact of self-deterrence.” Payne also served on Donald Rumsfield’s notorious Missile Commission which in 1998 said Iran was only five years away from a nuclear missile – the same gap as many analysts believe still exists today.

    Why is anyone giving any credence to someone with these views?

    Regards, Steve

  6. Just curious, did President Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin have Secretary Clinton’s “reset button” anywhere on display?

  7. UlyssesUnbound says:


    According to NPR this morning, they did indeed have the reset button on public display. I believe they said it was on display in a park in Moscow, but my memory for minutia has been faulty before.

  8. Dave Schuler says:


    Right now I’m inclined to favor some level of nuclear arms reduction but I’m not prepared to endorse any number. I agree with my friend Mark Safranski that President Obama’s stated objective of complete abolition of nuclear weapons by the major powers hasn’t been thought through completely and would probably lead to more war rather than less.

    As to “giving credence”, the op-ed was published in the WSJ and the Perry-Schlesinger Commission of which he is a member is a prestigious group. I neither endorse nor reject his views.

  9. The Strategic MC says:

    Donald Rumsfield’s notorious Missile Commission which in 1998 said Iran was only five years away from a nuclear missile – the same gap as many analysts believe still exists today.

    Er, not exactly:

    “The Commission judges that Iran now has the technical capability and resources to demonstrate an ICBM-range ballistic missile, similar to the
    TD-2 (based on scaled-up Scud technology), within five years of a decision to proceed–whether that decision has already been made or is yet to be

    Iran did a Shahab 3 (rng:1000-1300 km)launch in 2004 and successfully launched a satellite earlier this year; an ICBM capability could quickly follow.

  10. Steve Hynd says:

    The TD-2 isn’t an ICBM yet either, as it hasn’t been successfully tested. As to Iran. the scaling up to ICBM isn’t at all straightforward. Expert Geoffrey Forden estimated last year:

    I think even eight years sounds optimistic considering Iran’s known state of development but even that would be considerably longer than Obering’s 2015. And a more realistic estimate might be sometime beyond 2020 and that assumes that Iran has made the strategic decision to develop an ICBM capability; something that is not a logical consequence of the Safir space launch vehicle development.

    There’s more good discussion of the technical and cost difficulties here: http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/missile/icbm.htm

    Regards, Steve

  11. Eric Florack says:

    Your point is well taken, Steve, yet it’s clear that the Missle Commission’s report was at least misrepresented in your comments.