Is Post-Soviet Russia Enfeebled?

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In the wake of U.S. Senate ratification of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) between America and Russia, the issue of planned missile defense in East Europe has remained as a longstanding dispute. This disagreement is seemingly impacting the early implementation of above treaty that intends to slash about one third of existing strategic nuclear weapons of U.S. and Russia. The conclusion of New START has been hailed as a great achievement in revamping the U.S.-Russia relations, however, the anti missile system dispute, if not resolved quickly, may present a challenge to president Obama’s reset policy with Russia.

In post-Soviet Russia the Americans are now viewed with increasing suspicion despite Obama administration’s pronounced policy of reengagement with Russia. There are understandable reasons for this skepticism. Two incidents, among others, predominantly influence the Russian perception about the true intentions of the Americans. These are U.S. policies concerning the location of missile defense sites to the vicinity of Russian borders and continuing eastward expansion of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

Stephen F. Cohen, through his book, “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War”, argues that missile defense is a time bomb embedded in the New START treaty”. When negotiations were conducted in 2009-10 to produce New START treaty Moscow believed that president Obama had agreed to respect Russian objections to stationing antimissiles sites in Eastern Europe. But the Russians were astonished to find Obama personally promising to the U.S. Senate during ratification of the above treaty that the agreement places no limitations on the development and deployment of American missile defense programs.

At a time when president Obama needs Russian cooperation to pursue bilateral arms control agreements particularly on short-range tactical nuclear weapons where Russia has an edge, the dispute on missile defense system may sabotage his future plans. In November 2010 before the U.S. Senate ratified New START treaty the Russian President Medvedev announced that his country might participate in a NATO version of missile defense project.  Both the Russian president and prime minister have also emphasized that, “They will participate only on an absolutely equal basis or not participate at all”.

On May 18 Medvedev warned saying “Unless the missile defense conflict is resolved, there will be another escalation of the arms race that would throw us back into the Cold War”. Stephen Sestanovich notes that the Russians are wary of anything that sounds like the Regan administration’s “Star War” defense, which was designed to neutralize Russian nuclear deterrence. Despite U.S. clarification that anti missile defense does not impact the Russian deterrence, they ask the Americans what will happen if ten years from now the U.S. decides to go further on the disputed project.

NATO’s eastward expansion has institutionalized a new and even larger geopolitical conflict with Russia as opined by Stephen F. Cohen. The Russians may perceive such U.S. policy being influenced by their conclusion that post-Soviet Russia is weakened considerably. To move ahead with Russia more constructively and collaboratively the Obama administration needs to disprove such misconception.

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