Senate Approves Nuclear Arms Treaty With Russia

The Senate today ratified the much-debated nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, giving President Barack Obama a major foreign policy win in the closing hours of the postelection Congress.

Senator John Kerry (L) and Senator Richard Lugar (R) hold a news conference to discuss their support of ratifying the new START treaty, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, December 22, 2010. Photo: Senate Democrats/Flickr

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the broadest such pact between the former Cold War foes in nearly two decades, after a contentious debate with Republican leaders that threatened traditional bipartisanship on security affairs.

The Senate ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, by a vote of 71 to 26, fulfilling a major foreign-policy goal of President Barack Obama that seemed in jeopardy just days earlier.

In one of the final acts of the lame-duck Congress, 13 Senate Republicans joined with the Democratic majority to deliver more than the two-thirds tally needed for ratification.

“This treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them,” the U.S. President Barack Obama said after the vote, praising the bipartisan nature of the final result.

The vote was an endorsement of Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia and curb the pursuit of nuclear weapons by countries like North Korea and Iran.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the process was “a new gold standard for concluding agreements of this kind.”

“Not only does the treaty facilitate a strengthening of the security of Russia and the USA but it will also have a positive effect on international stability and security in general,” Lavrov told the Interfax news agency.

The Russian parliament has yet to approve the treaty – signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April – but the Kremlin-backed United Russia party is dominant, so ratification there is all but assured. Russian lawmakers will review the terms in the U.S. Senate’s resolution of ratification.

“Taking into account the amendments added by senators, we are forced to undertake a deep and thorough analysis of the text … since we are speaking about the national security of our country,” Leonid Slutsky, deputy chair of parliament’s international affairs committee, told Interfax.

“The winners are not defined by party or ideology. The winners are the American people, who are safer with fewer Russian missiles aimed at them,” Senator John Kerry, who led the debate as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said after the vote.

He said the treaty’s impact “will echo around the world,” showing that the United States remains determined to work with Russia and other countries to reduce the global threat from nuclear weapons.

“With this treaty, we send a message to Iran and North Korea that the international community remains united to restrain the nuclear ambitions of countries that operate outside the law,” Kerry added.

The treaty will cut long-range, strategic nuclear weapons deployed by Russia and the United States to no more than 1,550 on each side within seven years. Deployed missile launchers will be cut to no more than 700 on each side.

Once Moscow takes action on the pact, the U.S. will move to shrink its intercontinental ballistic-missile fleet to 420 from 450, and reduce the number of nuclear-capable bombers to 60 from 96.

Russia has a distinct advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, with about 2,050, compared with 500 in the active U.S. arsenal.

The new treaty has wide support in military and diplomatic circles. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it would make a “significant contribution” to regional security and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was a “clear message” supporting nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

However, critics of the treaty charged that its cuts in the strategic-weapons arsenal will prove destabilizing, potentially giving Russia, and eventually China, an edge over the U.S. as those nations take more aggressive steps to develop a new generation of nuclear warheads.

Jon Kyl, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate and an opponent of New START, said he would fight any effort to revive the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

“This may be the last arms control agreement for a while,” Kyl said. “I think we can get back to focusing on the real issues — issues of proliferation, terrorism and dealing with threats from countries like North Korea and Iran.” But arms control experts disagreed with him, hailing the treaty as a step in the right direction.

Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings think tank, said failure of the treaty would have undercut Obama on the world stage.

“Virtually all the NATO allies came out and endorsed this treaty,” he said. “And had the Obama administration not been able to deliver its ratification, I think that it would have really been a blow to the credibility and authority of the president when he was engaging overseas.”

Pifer added that while the treaty will not cause Iran or North Korea to alter their behavior, “it does give the administration a greater authority with other countries to up the pressure on North Korea and Iran.”

As part of his negotiations with Republicans to secure their support for ratification, Mr. Obama pledged to spend $85 billion over 10 years modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Conservative critics want the U.S. not just to refurbish old weapons, but also to design new warheads, including potentially low-yield warheads that could more realistically be used in a conflict. [via Reuters, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal]

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