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Kyl Hamstringing START Deal And US-Russian Relations

It looks as if the final hurdle to a new START deal rests on largely symbolic and inconsequential language relating to missile defense. Yet this language is becoming a major obstacle for a new START treaty and prompted a phone call between President Obama and Russian President Medvedev. However, the call wasn’t enough to finalize a deal and negotiators adjourned talks. McClatchy reports that:

Negotiations to complete a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty have stalled over a Russian demand for the option to withdraw unilaterally if Moscow determines that U.S. missile defenses would threaten its intercontinental nuclear missile force, a senior U.S. official said Monday. Similar “unilateral statements” have been included in previous arms control treaties, and the Bush administration used one in 2002 to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union. The Obama administration, however, has rejected the Russian demand, fearing that it could make it harder to win the Republican votes needed for Senate ratification of the new nuclear arms pact.

Why is the Obama administration going to the mat over an inconsequential issue? Last week, Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) wrote a letter (pdf) to Obama protesting this possible treaty clause, arguing that it was “troubling” because it would “put pressure on the United States to limit” its missile defense systems. But this is a ridiculous argument since if the Russians feel that strongly about the threat of US missile defense they could still withdraw from the next START treaty whether that language is in the treaty or not. In other words, the additional language changes nothing. Therefore, the letter from Kyl seems more like an effort to disguise his opposition behind the more politically palatable issue of missile defense, rather than have to argue that he is crazily against decreasing the number of nuclear weapons pointed at the United States.

Now Kyl — who is the most important Republican in this area — has not said he would oppose a new treaty and he did seemingly signal that to support the treaty he may no longer be demanding the building of new nuclear weapons. This is a good sign and getting Kyl to support the treaty would guarantee ratification.

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But getting Kyl’s support is also a huge gamble since almost every sign points to Kyl doing everything he can to obstruct a treaty. As the McClatchy story indicates, trying to meet Jon Kyl’s demands has a real cost, as it is stalling the entire treaty and putting ratification this year in doubt, as well as creating unnecessary turmoil in the US-Russian relationship. Should the Administration succeed in stripping out the language, the Administration would still be gambling on the sincerity of Kyl to not backtrack on any deal to support the final treaty.