Jon Kyl has spoken. The Senate minority whip, emboldened by his party's midterm election gains, said Tuesday that the Senate shouldn't vote on the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty this year, likely sealing the fate of what would have been the signature foreign-policy accomplishment of U.S. President Barack Obama's first two years in the White House. If the Senate doesn't attempt a vote before the end of the year, the treaty's odds of passing will be even longer come January, with a thinner Democratic majority and a Republican minority that mostly agrees with Kyl; the prospect is now very real that New START will be consigned to the diplomatic scrap heap.
If this looks bad from Washington, it looks worse from Moscow. Kyl isn't just imperiling Obama's arms-reduction ambitions -- he's also diminishing the American president's credibility abroad. And in the eyes of Russia's leaders, he's casting into doubt the United States' commitment to fixing its relationship with Russia.
To the Kremlin, New START's apparent demise may well mean the end of an arms-control agenda that seemed on the verge of resuscitation by Obama after suffering clinical death at the hands of George W. Bush. Arms-control agreements gave Russia a sense of security in the post-Cold War era, when the former superpower was struggling to define itself in the shadow of a militarily superior United States. The agreements allowed Russian leaders to claim strategic equality with the United States, holding on to a small measure of great-power status. That came to an end in 2002, when Bush pulled out of the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
That the Bush-era policy of zero arms control is suddenly poised to make a comeback is definitely bad news -- not just for arms control, but for the entire U.S.-Russia relationship. Both President Dmitry Medvedev (overtly) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (covertly) have invested a great deal in a new relationship with the United States and, in the run-up to NATO's Lisbon summit this weekend, hoped for a similar "reset" with that organization. Now the hard-liners in Russia who argued that Obama's charm offensive was but a brief interlude in an otherwise hegemonic U.S. foreign policy will see their views vindicated by the START debacle. Those who doubt the wisdom of cooperation with the United States and NATO on missile defense will speak with more confidence. Russian strategists will see U.S. missile defense efforts in more confrontational terms. Instead of thinking about coordinating defenses with the United States, they will resume thinking about how to defend Russia from the United States. "The future of the reset process which implies the development of a partnership on security issues depends on the ratification of the treaty in one way or another," Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council of Russia's international affairs committee, told the Interfax news agency.