The Cold War-era Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START) missile treaty is due to expire in February and is a golden opportunity for the West to actually force some change on the Kremlin.
The bilateral treaty signed between the US and Russia in 1993 puts limits on the number of strategic missiles each side can have and where they can be placed. It is cornerstone agreement to ensure peace.
Since 2014 the West has increasingly used sanctions as the diplomatic weapon of choice to curb and cajole Moscow into changing its ways. The trouble is that, as bne IntelliNews has argued, sanctions don't work very well. Arguably they have made Russia more difficult to deal with, as it has dug its heels in and with almost $600bn in reserves it can easily weather the economic pain they have inflicted.
The renewal of the START treaty is a golden opportunity for the West to squeeze some real concessions out of Russia, as the Kremlin badly wants to renew the deal. With its economy suffering from the double whammy of an oil price collapse and the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the last thing it wants is to start a new arms race, which is what failing to renew the START deal would lead to. For once the West has some real leverage over Moscow, which has repeatedly asked for talks to begin.
It hasn't happened. The Trump administration has refused point blank to even return the Kremlin’s calls.
The logic is that the West does not need to negotiate with Russia because of NATO’s overwhelming military might. The west can just dictate terms and doesn't want to limit its options on building up its defences in the face of a Russian military threat.
Let’s put aside the fact that there is no need to build the West’s military defences against Russia as the former's military strength superiority is so huge that for the Kremlin it is inconceivable that it would ever go to war with NATO. It didn't want to during the Cold War, as it was unlikely to win at the peak of Soviet power, and that is doubly true following the collapse of communism in 1991.
The US spent $719bn on its military in 2019. The EU spent an addition $162bn to make a combined total of $881bn. Russia spent $65bn in the same year.
Sure, a missile attack on the West by Russia would be catastrophic and wreck the global economy, but given Russia only has 11 cities with a population of more than one million, the response by NATO is guaranteed to annihilate the entire Russian economy on the first day of fighting. A first strike by Russia using conventional weapons will never happen.
Because of its military supremacy, the West didn't need to negotiate when the US unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 that kicked off the currents arms race. It didn't need to negotiate when it set up the missile shield to protect Poland and Romania from random missile attacks by North Korea – the official rationale. It didn't need to negotiate when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) deal in in August 2019, which bans missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.
And now Washington doesn't need to negotiate on renewing the START 2 treaty, because the West doesn't want to constrain its ability to build up missile capabilities that it says it will never use first against Russia because NATO is “purely a defensive” organisation. The fact that the chances of Russia launching a pre-emptive missile attack on the West is vanishingly small is just ignored.
Underpinning this refusal to talk is the assumption that being tough with Russia comes at no political cost. The US has no visible foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia. Oil and other raw materials are sold on commodity markets and so the ownership is essentially anonymous and untouchable. Russia’s economy is big but not big enough to give it the impunity that China has enjoyed – at least until recently. And so on.
But it is becoming increasingly obvious that this assumption is not true. As bne IntelliNews has reported, it turns out that the US is actually the biggest foreign investor in Russia; its just American firms don't sent their money directly to Russia from New York, so the US FDI actually gets counted as investment by the likes of Cyprus or the Netherlands, etc.
At the same time Russia, has emerged as a major geopolitical player in a number of conflicts where the West needs its help. The most obvious is Ukraine, where Putin’s support of separatist rebels in Donbas forced German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the table with him in Minsk.
But since then Moscow’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given Russia a powerful seat at the table in the Middle East. The West needs to negotiate with Russia on Syria. The West needs to negotiate with Russia on Libya, which is rapidly developing into the next crisis. The West needs to negotiate with Russia on Iran, where Moscow also has its feet well under the table. The West needs to negotiate with Russia on China, where Russia has a strategic alliance with Beijing (or better a marriage of convenience, but still, it has influence in China).
And in just the last few months there are two new conflicts where the West would like to play a role, but can’t. Now the West needs to negotiate with Russia to resolved the Belarusian political crisis. The West also needs to negotiate with Russia on the end game to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the international mediation Minsk Group – that includes France and the US – was supposed to be in charge of talks but has been completely sidelined by the peace deal signed with Russia this week. Some analysts have argued the fact Moscow shut Paris and Washington out of those negotiations completely is proof of the end of the US role as global policeman and “neighbour to every country in the world.”
The new Biden administration has indicated that it may extend the START deal and is willing to talk to the Kremlin. But it should do more than this. It should seize the chance to start building a new security deal with the post-communist Russia, as there are plenty of places where the US and Russia can co-operate to mutual advantage.
Given Russia’s growing clout on the international stage, even if it remains weak both economically and militarily, the START negotiations are a golden opportunity to open real negotiations with Moscow, as for once the West has something that Moscow really wants: limits on the production and deployment of ballistic missiles.