The best that can be said about the now-ratified START treaty is that it may do only limited damage to American national security. Russia will give up missiles it cannot maintain in return for cuts by the American side that are real. The treaty is also not certain to be observed. Sen. John McCain was correct to point out that a regime capable of fabricating a case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos Oil Company, is morally unreliable and cannot be relied on voluntarily to fulfill its commitments.
The risk of the treaty is reduced, however, because the role of Russia in the world has changed. Russia can no longer confront the United States globally. It can assert itself only by undermining the U.S. — and world security — in specific situations, such as Iran, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. In this respect, the reduced ceilings on nuclear weapons are irrelevant.
But if the treaty does relatively little harm, it most certainly will produce little good. Sen. John Kerry said it would strengthen U.S.–Russian relations and facilitate cooperation over Iran and Afghanistan. It will do no such thing. The reason is that the new Russia, without a messianic ideology, needs a threat from the West to keep a kleptocratic “elite” in power. That need will not go away no matter how many treaties are negotiated and it is this reality, not meaningless repetitions of a Cold War ritual, that should guide U.S. expectations in the future.
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and author of Haunted Ground: Russia and the Communist Past, forthcoming from Yale University Press.