With less than two weeks left before the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia expires on Dec. 5, and with no deal on a replacement treaty yet, Senate Republicans are sounding the alarms.
They know that there's no way for the follow-on treaty, which negotiators are hammering out in Geneva, to be ratified this year. So the GOP is warning about what could happen to the verification and inspection activities now ongoing under START when the deadline passes.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, the number two Republican in the Senate, is leading the drumbeat decrying the lack of an interim or 'bridge' agreement, which he says bodes poorly for the negotiations. Kyl just returned from a trip to Geneva with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and issued a memo, obtained by The Cable, that warns about what might happen after the deadline passes.
"For the first time in 15 years, an extensive set of verification, notification, elimination and other confidence building measures will expire ... Yet, no one appears to know what will come next," Kyl wrote. "That we don't have answers to these questions is alarming, more so because our negotiators must have known for months that a ‘bridge' would be necessary."
The START treaty was ratified 429 days after it was submitted to the Senate in 1991, Kyl pointed out. He also said that there had been "virtually no talk" about what would happen to the verification and inspection regimes after Dec. 5.
That claim is disputed by State Department officials such as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen O. Tasucher, who have said for months they are planning an interim agreement to continue verifications and inspections until Senate ratification is possible.
But GOP Senate staffers contend that Tauscher's more recent comments, in which she said she was "very disappointed" in the latest proposal delivered to the Russians by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, showed a lack of progress on a bridge agreement.
That nervousness is what prompted Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, to put forth a bill extending START verification for six months more. Lugar's bill was approved by the committee last week.
For the Senate Republicans, who are admittedly not privy to all the negotiations, the absence of evidence of a bridge agreement is evidence of its absence.
"To be now two weeks away and they haven't agreed on this is remarkable," said one senior GOP Senate aide, who speculated that the Russians may want the START standards to lapse so they can deploy fancy new missiles now banned, such as the RS-24.
"It was clear to Kyl that even the Russians didn't want to talk about a bridging agreement as well," the aide said.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Monday that while no bridge agreement had been reached, the two sides are "looking at ways that a number of provisions can remain in effect in this period between December 5th and whenever the new treaty is ratified."
All of this is pretext for the coming debate over nuclear weapons in the Senate early next year. Senate Republicans are cautiously looking at supporting a new treaty, but are already making their case that the agreement shouldn't place too severe restrictions on the nuclear or conventional capabilities the U.S. has now. It also shouldn't allow the Russians to expand their arsenal with new weapons.
"When the new treaty comes back to the Senate, if it requires a lessening of verification, if it requires force structure changes ... it's going to make ratification problematic," the aide explained.
President Obama could sign a new agreement when he goes to Europe to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10. The debate in the Senate is expected early next Spring. The U.S. negotiating team is led by State's Rose Gottemoeller and the Pentagon's Ted Warner.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.