Russia wants START extended

Browsing through familiar twitter accounts led me to a communique posted on the webpage of the Russian embassy in London, which reiterates the information broadcast by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “@MFA_Russia: Moscow is ready to discuss extending START treaty for another 5 years, if that is the intention of the US Government.” The piece of news is important, especially since it appears against the backdrop in which numerous analyses on Russian affairs cite the deterioration in Moscow’s relations with Washington, especially over the issue of Russia’s potential involvement in the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 or of Trump campaign team’s ties to Russia, an issue that has caused major turmoil in American political life in recent months. It may seem strange, but the analyses of prestigious experts on the latest events in Russia even suggest the conclusion that Russian leader V. Putin may be at the end of his long political career. Here is, for instance, what the international affairs commentator of ‘The Financial Times’ wrote the other days: “If Vladimir Putin did help to put Donald Trump in the White House, it would be the ultimate intelligence coup. Yet, it might also prove to be the ultimate own goal. An operation designed to ease the pressure on Mr Putin’s government by installing a friendly face in the White House has instead led to a tightening of sanctions on Russia, and a dangerous increase in the domestic political pressure on the Russian president.” To be more explicit, the commentator states that President D. Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey generated developments (the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate Trump team’s ties to Russia during the presidential campaign being among them) that, Rachman says, “could lead to the impeachment of Mr Trump – and the destruction of his presidency.” In passing, let us recall that Steve Bannon, D. Trump’s former strategist and aide, recently stated in an interview that dismissing Comey was the President’s biggest political mistake and that his son-in-law Kushner will probably have to resign. Hence, the White House does not underestimate at all the danger that the investigations into the current administration’s ties to Russia during the presidential elections represent for its stability. But Rachman goes further, pointing out that such investigations “pose an indirect threat to Mr. Putin,” since the Russian leader will face presidential elections next March. The British commentator estimates that Putin “faces a re-energised opposition, led by the popular and daring Alexei Navalny, and a deteriorating economy that has hit Russian consumers hard. Even though very few people expect Mr Putin to lose the election, the pro-Putin euphoria of a couple of years ago is clearly fading. Articles about the post-Putin era have begun to appear in the Russian media.” And the expert’s last observation is revealed and argued by the simple browsing of the recent opinions published by ‘Moscow Times.’ In such a recent analysis, its author refers to “Russia’s presidential elections in March, slated to give President Vladimir Putin his fourth term,” context in which “Russian political commentators are updating their power maps of the country’s elite.” The analysis cites a Russian political leadership model devised by one of the country’s top journalists (K. Gaaze), defined by “an informal court of Putin’s personal friends-turned-billionaires and confidants superimposes onto official government and adds more levers to the Russian president’s policy tool kit.” However, the most frequent model is the one that likens Russia’s current leadership to a “Politburo 2.0,” in other words to a typically Soviet institution updated to the digital era, which includes “the country’s top officials, heads of state corporations and oligarchs under the Russian president according to their influence.” While such analytical exercises – the author shows – are interesting to read, they only have limited practical usefulness in terms of propping up the understanding of the political leadership’s actions, their motivation, the way in which a large-scale crisis would be managed “at the top.” In other words, he concludes his analysis, “if anything, it seems to have become more difficult to answer questions about the Kremlin’s decision-making vertical 18 years since Vladimir Putin shot to power.” Which, obviously, is not a eulogy of Russia’s top-level political decision-making in the last almost two decades.

However, what is the link between these analyses from the United Kingdom or Russia and the Russian embassy’s tweet concerning Moscow’s desire to discuss the five-year extension of the START Treaty? This document, signed by the U.S. and Russia in 2010, is basically the foundation of the legality of the current international strategic situation, stipulating the limits of each side’s strategic arms. Similarly, the treaty refers to the positions of Russia and the U.S. included in two reservations: the Russian one – namely that Russia will denounce the treaty once the development of the American missile defence system endangers its own strategic interests; the American one – the U.S. sees fit to develop its own missile defence system in accordance solely with its strategic interests. In recent years, every time relations between Russia and the U.S. reached low levels, there was talk of the denunciation of this START Treaty. Moreover, there were mutual accusations concerning the infringement of some of its stipulations in what concerns the deployment of American missile defence sites or, on the other hand, the deployment of the Russian missile defence system. But, overall, the treaty, which ensured global strategic stability between the planet’s two most powerful nuclear states, including mutual on-site verifications, was observed and is still in force. Russia has now taken the initiative of negotiating its five-year extension. Could this signal mean that Moscow wants a relaxation of the mutual relationship rocked by the investigation into the Trump team’s potential ties to Russia and by the accusations levelled against Moscow about its involvement in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign? Does the Kremlin fear the result of the presidential elections of March 2018, as some experts suggest? Or is this rather a simple procedure to uphold international strategic stability which would otherwise be seriously compromised in the absence of the START Treaty if it were to become invalid without being replaced by a similar one?

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