Russian Arms Control Gambit May Have Backfired

How’s this for irony? The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in October it was awarding this year’s Peace Prize to Barack Obama largely because his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.” Yet a consequence of the committee’s decision may have been the delay in the conclusion of the U.S.-Russian talks in Geneva on a new strategic arms treaty to replace the one that expired on Saturday.

Here’s what seems to have happened: the Russians assumed (correctly) that Obama would like to have a treaty to sign with President Medvedev before his trip to Oslo this Thursday to receive the prize. A concrete diplomatic accomplishment would have helped blunt the criticism that the award is premature and, in that sense, undeserved.

The Russians may have overplayed their hand, figuring (incorrectly) that Obama was so eager for a deal that he’d grant them last-minute concessions to get it before he goes to Oslo. That’s the most likely explanation for why their military toughened its stance on some unresolved issues involving verification and monitoring. The Pentagon—in part to demonstrate that it isn’t going to be pushed around—hardened its own stand. Obama himself was miffed at the Russian squeeze play.

There will still almost certainly be a treaty, although later than Obama would have liked—perhaps when he returns to Europe for the Copenhagen climate summit next week. If that happens, the Russians will have achieved nothing with their eleventh-hour tactical stonewalling. They will only have complicated negotiations on an agreement that is at least as much in their interests as the U.S.’s and slightly soured an otherwise solid relationship between their president and Obama.