The “reset” between Russia and the United States has not been going particularly well, especially since Russian officials have balked at agreeing to oppose harsher sanctions on Iran. Nevertheless, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- or START agreement -- between the United States and Russia has been touted as the one area where the two countries are getting along; officials on both sides have promised that they will meet the Dec. 5 deadline for a new version of the agreement, which expires on that date. The agreement is important because it helps reduce the nuclear arsenal on both sides and also allows for inspections of nuclear facilities in the U.S. and Russia. Moreover, as Walter Pincus points out in The Washington Post, it potentially offers a forum for discussion of issues such as “operational readiness," which is another way of describing the speed in which either the Russians or the Americans might launch a nuclear warhead.
Despite the negotiation roadblocks, it is a subject worth pursuing: “It is clear that the idea of using nuclear weapons as an instrument of politics is very dear to the current Russian leadership,” according to a Russian Strategy Nuclear Forces blogger, upon reading an Isvestia interview with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, pointing out that Russians have been “considering a nuclear option in local wars.”
The view that START agreement discussions were in some way sacred -- at least in the sense that U.S. and Russian officials have unequivocally claimed that things were going forward -- may truly be a stumbling block in actually getting it done. Without a pragmatic and sensible approach to the agreements, there's a chance that important issues such as "operational readiness" may not end up on the START agenda. Behind the scenes, Russia is fighting hard on several aspects of the agreement, and it would have been better if the American officials had been more realistic about the prospects for reaching an agreement by December and had started trying to work things out with the Russian long ago. Maybe then they would not be facing a deadline that appears impossible to meet.