Obama’s Russia Sojourn

44140130_18280753001_0401dv-pol-obama-medvedev-SJ-s260608AT1VW104Keeping up his promise, Barack Obama had reached out to Russia. The happily concluded meeting between the heads of USA and Russia is to be taken seriously then there is a possibility of good times ahead. Especially in the nuclear disarmament front things will move in the right direction.

G. Parathasarthy writes in The Times of India (17 July 2009)

Given his desire to “reset” relations with Russia, US president Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow on July 6-7 was intended to show improvement in anotherwise strained relationship, marked by deep Russian suspicions about American moves to expand the NATO alliance, by co-opting Russia’s neighbours like Ukraine and Georgia. Such moves were perceived as attempts to strategically ‘contain’ Russia. While suspicions remain, the visit was marked by a landmark agreement signalling Russian support to the US in Afghanistan. Russia agreed to permit 4,500 flights annually across Russian airspace by US military aircraft carrying military supplies to Afghanistan. The Americans have also heralded the understanding reached on a framework for a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the two countries.

Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev agreed they would reduce their strategic nuclear warheads from the current ceiling of 2,200 warheads each to between 1,500 and 1,675 and that they would reduce the current ceiling of 1,600 long-range strategic missiles, to between 500 and 1,100, over the next seven years. While this has been described as a great step towards nuclear disarmament, the reality is somewhat different. Even at reduced levels, the two countries will retain enough weaponry to destroy each other and the rest of the world several times over. Between them, they today possess an estimated 22,400 nuclear warheads.

The real reason for all the hype and hoopla about START lies in the fact that the forthcoming review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is due next year. The Obama administration cannot allow this review to end in a fiasco as in 2005, when non-nuclear weapons states assailed the US and other powers for failing to fulfil their obligations to disarm and grant unhindered access to nuclear energy to those who have foregone the nuclear option. The 2005 fiasco was followed by growing international concern over Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The US would showcase START with Russia as symbolising its commitment to nuclear disarmament.

More ominously for India, it appears that the US may be seeking to divert attention from the lack of serious commitment to nuclear disarmament by focusing on the need to “universalise” NPT membership, by endorsing the suggestion that the real threat of proliferation arises from countries like India which have not signed the NPT and that they should be pressured into doing so. Islamic countries, particularly in the Arab world, are expected to support this argument as a means to pressure Israel
into foregoing its nuclear weapons. The US move in the G8 to deny enrichment and reprocessing facilities to India as a non-signatory to NPT has to be seen in this context.

Obama is reportedly planning to take his nuclear agenda forward by hosting a summit of around 30 countries in 2010. How should India respond? While India has not done anything to undermine NPT’s efficacy, it would have to take the moral high ground by noting that on issues of nuclear disarmament the World Court’s views should not be ignored, but implemented. The World Court was asked its opinion on a query: “Is the threat of use of nuclear weapons permitted under International Law?” On July 8, 1996, the court held that states possessing nuclear weapons have not just a need but an obligation to commence negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament. It also held that the use of nuclear weapons would be generally contrary to the principles of international law, though there was some doubt about the extreme contingency when “the very survival of a state” was threatened.

Despite the World Court’s view, the US, in its 2005 Doctrine of Joint Operations, reserves the right to use nuclear weapons even to “rapidly end a war” on terms favourable to it. The UK and France have reserved the right to resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Russia has discarded the Soviet policy of no first use. India should work with non-nuclear weapons states to move a resolution in the UN General Assembly later this year declaring the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons as inadmissible and calling on all states to foreswear threat of use of nuclear weapons. The guiding principles of an equitable global nuclear regime are reflected in the opinion of the World Court, more than in the NPT.

Non-proliferation and climate change will figure in the agenda for talks with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, an influential advocate of strengthening India-US relations, during her India visit. Reprocessing of spent fuel is imperative if we are to proceed with our indigenous, three-stage, thorium-based nuclear energy programme. Denial of reprocessing facilities will slow down our nuclear power programme, inhibit India-US cooperation on nuclear power and not exactly serve the cause of replacing polluting hydrocarbons with clean nuclear energy. Sadly, it would also undermine the letter and spirit of the October 2008 123 Agreement and the “clean waiver” that the Nuclear Suppliers Group accorded to India.

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