President Obama’s decision to cancel his scheduled September summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is problematic, but predictable. The White House was furious at Putin’s decision to grant whistleblower Edward Snowden temporary asylum in Russia. But this incident, and the canceled summit, cannot be allowed to derail critical United States national security issues that require Russian cooperation.
During the Cold War, the U.S. talked to the Soviets while they occupied Eastern Europe and sent dissidents to the gulags. We talked to China while Mao dispatched tanks to North Vietnam. Great powers find a way to conduct their most serious business despite sharp disagreements. Beyond the Snowden flap, however, there was a deeper issue: the likelihood that Putin and Obama would not have any agreements to announce at a September summit.
The U.S. and Russia are far apart on Syria, missile defense, and further nuclear reductions. Their positions are closer on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and the Middle East, but even here there are sharp differences. At this point, there did not appear to be an outcome to the September summit that would be a gain for U.S. security. As the New York Times editorialized on August 6, the only result of a summit meeting “would be to add to Mr. Putin’s domestic political capital and his already considerable self-esteem.”
The cancelation of the bilateral meeting makes the U.S.-Russian talks in Washington this Friday that much more important. The presidents may not be meeting, but their senior officials are — and they have a chance to foster the cooperation necessary to address urgent nuclear threats confronting both nations. On Friday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with their Russian counterparts Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The item at the top of their list should be resuscitating stalled reductions of the nuclear arsenals left over from the Cold War. The U.S. and Russia hold 95 percent of all nuclear weapons in the world. Both still have about 1,000 hydrogen bombs on missiles ready to launch at one another on 15-minutes notice. Most of these warheads are 10 to 50 times more powerful than the atomic bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki seven decades ago. A mistake or miscalculation risks catastrophe. More troubling, each nation has thousands of additional weapons in various stages of deployment or storage.
But Putin has been reluctant to engage in new talks to reduce these weapons. He continues to pile on conditions about conventional forces in Europe, precision-strike weapons the U.S. is developing and other issues he wants addressed before he will discuss nuclear cuts. The Russians still see these obsolete weapons as totems of great power status. And his missile industry wants to keep getting lucrative state contracts to build these behemoths. As President Obama told Jay Leno this week, “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.”
This is where Hagel and Kerry can help. Both know these issues well. Each has spoken eloquently about the need to reduce the risks posed by nuclear weapons, and on ways that nuclear reductions would bolster the U.S.’ ability to convince other nations to help reign in nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. Hagel has written that the U.S. could reduce its current active stockpile of some 5,000 weapons to 1,000 without any harm to U.S. vital interests. Now is the time for both to weigh in.
They can tell the Russians that rather than wait for a new round of negotiations on all nuclear weapons, both states can agree to make modest, mutual cuts below the level agreed to in the last treaty, the 2010 New START agreement. This treaty set a ceiling for deployed strategic weapons, but not a floor. It turns out Russia is already about a hundred weapons below the treaty limit of 1,550 warheads on bombers, subs and missiles, while the U.S. is one hundred above the limit. Russia is retiring more of its aging force each year than it can replace, so its force will continue to decline. The two states could agree that rather than build new expensive weapons, they will reduce to about 1,000 or so deployed strategic warheads.
Many from within the U.S. military establishment have already agreed that the U.S. can safely go down to this level, as President Obama announced in Berlin on June 20. It still leaves more than enough weapons to respond to any conceivable military contingency — and to destroy the planet many times over. Here, Hagel will have to confront the Cold War thinking still prevalent among some of his own civilian appointees who see these weapons as bargaining chips and have exempted nuclear weapons from the cuts to the military mandated by the sequester. They act as if cutting the nuclear budget by eight percent would imperil the survival of the nation, and instead shift the budget cuts over to conventional forces and civilian furloughs.
As nettlesome as the Snowden problem is, the administration must find a way to work around it. To do so, it can draw on its own experiences from its first year in office. Then, the president overcame the intense disagreements over the Russian war with Georgia to hammer out the New START treaty by April of 2010. His administration can apply the same grit and realism to prevent this latest flap and Russia’s behavior from harming America’s core national security interests.
Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late (forthcoming).