Russia seems to be standing in the way of Barack Obama achieving his (and Kennedy’s) dream of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

Photo: Reuters

Addressing a crowd at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 19, U.S. President Barack Obama recalled that exactly 50 years earlier, another U.S. President, John Kennedy, had delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berlliner" speech in the same city. Obama recalled the fragment of Kennedy's speech where the latter predicted the arrival of "peace with justice" in a world where freedom would triumph and the dividing lines of the Cold War would disappear.

Obama said that part of bringing this justice to the world should mean an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a diminishing role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear doctrine, a one-third cut in deployed Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons, a reduction in the nonstrategic nuclear weapons of Russia and the United States, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament of North Korea, plus early ratification by the United States of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CNTBT).

The American president made a similar call for nuclear disarmament in Prague in May of 2009. The main outcome of that speech was the revival of nuclear disarmament talks, which led to the signing of a new START Treaty in 2010. Nevertheless, many of the other theses that Obama put forward in Prague concerning nuclear disarmament are yet to be implemented.

For instance, the United States has not yet ratified the CNTBT, which prevents the treaty from coming into force. Talks that Obama elaborated upon in 2009 on a treaty to ban the production of fissionable materials never started. North Korea has since carried out two nuclear tests, and suspicions about Iran's nuclear program have only grown. The new Offensive Reduction Treaty, despite all of its pluses, has shown that neither Russia nor the United States are ready in the coming decade to cut their strategic weapons below the levels set by the 2002 START Treaty.

On the day Obama spoke in Berlin, the Russian leader declared that Obama's proposals were presently impossible to implement. "We cannot allow the balance of the strategic deterrence system to be upset, lowering the effectiveness of our nuclear forces," Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a meeting on the state defence contract. And Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said that Russia "cannot endlessly agree to bilateral cuts and limitations of nuclear weapons with the United States," and that "lending the disarmament process a multilateral character is becoming an ever more pressing task."

The multilateral nature of any future nuclear disarmament talks is not the only Russian condition for continued nuclear reductions. The Russian leaders have set out the following conditions more than once since 2009. First, Russia and the United States should comply with their commitments under the new START, under which cuts would only be completed in 2018.

Second, any nonstrategic nuclear weapons cuts urged by Obama in his Berlin speech would only be possible once American nonstrategic nuclear weapons are withdrawn from Europe.

Third, any future nuclear weapons cuts should be carried out in the context of measures to prevent weapons from being deployed in outer space, to limit the development of non-nuclear strategic weapons and to limit the development of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence.

So, in fact, Russia's answer to Obama's proposals was formulated before he repeated them in Berlin and can be summed up as follows: Russia will not agree to cut its strategic nuclear forces before 2018 and to reduce nonstrategic nuclear weapons while the U.S. nonstrategic nuclear forces and its infrastructure are on European territory. By the same token, after 2018, cuts would be possible if the ballistic missile defense problem was solved, the development of space weapons and non-nuclear strategic arms were limited and other nuclear powers joined the disarmament process.

Obama must have known these preconditions when he spoke about disarmament in Berlin. What was the aim of his initiatives? First, practical steps in the field of nuclear arms control and disarmament rhetoric remain his foreign policy trump cards. Second, in Berlin, Obama positioned himself as an “ideologist” who is constructing the "peace with justice" predicted by Kennedy. And, Obama said, "peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons - no matter how distant that dream might be." 

Having recognized in Prague that the goal of a nuclear-free world "will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime", Obama, a true idealist, probably expects that in 50 years' time some other American president might recall his Berlin speech, standing on the threshold of a nuclear-free world.

At the same time, to come up with any initiatives in such a difficult sphere as disarmament one has to remain "an idealist without illusions," as Kennedy described himself. Judging from the Russian response to Obama's proposals, the "world of peace with justice" and the "world free of nuclear weapons" referred to by Obama so far remain goals that have nothing in common with the real interests and possibilities of its future inhabitants.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.