GOP Irked By Russian Stance On START Treaty Limiting Missile Defense

GOP Irked By Russian Stance On START Treaty Limiting Missile Defense

Senior administration officials tried to convince skeptical Republican senators recently that U.S. missile-defense plans would not be impeded by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia.

The treaty, which President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed April 8, needs the approval of 67 senators to be ratified.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that the New START agreement itself in no way impacts the Pentagon’s current missile-defense plans (Defense Daily, April 30).

However, Sens. James DeMint (R-S.C.), James Risch (R-Idaho), and Robert Corker (R-Tenn.) raised concerns about Russian and U.S. officials’ clashing interpretations of what the treaty would mean for U.S. missile defenses.

Russia issued a unilateral statement, not part of the treaty itself, saying it has the right to withdraw from the pact if the United States continues to develop missile defense systems. Yet Clinton downplayed the strength of that non-binding statement from Russia.

"They have a right to withdraw anyway," she said. "And with the original START treaty, they said similar things about missile defense, and here we are billions of dollars later" in development of systems to protect forward-deployed troops and allies, as well as the U.S. homeland.

The United States issued its own unilateral statement, saying it intends to continue improving and deploying missile defense systems and is not prevented from doing so by the treaty.

"These unilateral statements are very much a pattern," Clinton said. "We make them. They make them. But they are not binding because they’re not part of the treaty."

Republican senators also pointed to language in the treaty’s preamble regarding a balance between strategic offensive and defensive systems; it says: "Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced."

DeMint debated with Clinton and Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) about what those words would mean.

Clinton and Kerry, a treaty supporter, said the preamble simply acknowledges the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive arms as a fact, without any agreement regarding action.

DeMint said the "Russians don’t appear to misunderstand what’s in this treaty."

"It’s very clear (in the preamble) that we can develop defensive missile defense as long as it does not threaten their offensive capabilities," he said. "That’s exactly what it says here. That’s what they’ve said in their statement. There is a clear disconnect between what (Obama administration officials) are telling us and what it says in this treaty and what the Russians are saying."

"It’s clear that at any point that our missile defense threatens their ability to deliver offensive weapons, that they feel completely free to walk away from this treaty," the GOP senator added.

Clinton countered that similar preamble language was included in the now-expired START treaty. She told DeMint: "I hope we will be able to persuade you by the end of this process–and we will certainly make every effort to do so–that nothing in any previous treaty, nor any unilateral statement or any preamble to a treaty, has in any way constrained our development of missile defense up to this date, and nothing in the current new treaty does either."

Clinton and Gates noted the United States has developed missile defense systems over the past 40 years despite the Russians’ opposition.

"All I would say is it’s the latest chapter in a long line of Russian objections to our proceeding with missile defense," Gates said, adding: "It’s because we can afford it and they can’t."

"We’re going to be able to build a good one, and are building a good one, and they probably aren’t," he said. "And they don’t want to devote the resources to it, so they try and stop us from doing it through political means.

He pointed out that U.S. policy does not call for building missile defenses that would render Russia’s nuclear capabilities useless, but is intended to protect against nations like North Korea and Iran, which have more-limited capabilities and have shown "aggressive intent."

Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) generally spoke favorably about New START. He told the administration officials that even though they have insisted the treaty would in no way inhibit U.S. missile defense, "that point still doesn’t quite get through" in the Senate.

"We have people worried about something in this treaty that’s going to inhibit missile defense," Lugar said. "So I ask for your continued guidance as to how we make that point."

Mullen noted the "purpose of this treaty was to not get at missile defense."

"I see no restrictions in this treaty in terms of our development of missile defense, which is a very important system," he said. "I would actually hope that in the long term, given the relationship with Russia, that we would be able to see our way through to more cooperative efforts with them in terms of missile defense."

Corker, still, said it is "troubling that we begin with two divergent views (from Russia and the United States) on what we’ve agreed to as it relates to missile defense."

And Risch said "when you read the preamble, when you read some of the language in it, and most importantly when you read the unilateral statements, we have irreconcilable differences" with the Russians.