The Cable

Biden and Donilon preparing for new nuclear discussions with Russia

Vice President Joe Biden will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this weekend in Munich and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will travel to Moscow next month to try to kick-start a new round of U.S.-Russia nuclear reduction negotiations, The Cable has learned.

It was four years ago at the Munich Security Conference that Biden first spoke about the Obama administration's desire to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations after years of deterioration during the George W. Bush administration. Now, at the beginning of Obama's second term, Biden and Donilon are leading the charge to reinvigorate that reset, following a series of setbacks in the U.S.-Russia relationship that has included President Vladimir Putin accusing the United States of meddling in Russian politics, anger over a new U.S. law to sanction Russian human rights violators, and a new Russian ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans.

At their meeting last March on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea, President Barack Obama was caught on a hot mic telling then President Dmitry Medvedev that after the November 2012 election he would have more "flexibility," a comment many interpreted to mean Obama would be able to sidestep potential political opposition to changes he wanted to make to America's nuclear posture and missile defense plans.

In an interview last week in Davos with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Medvedev explained that Obama was signaling he would have more negotiating power on these subjects, but said that the two countries were still quite far apart.

"Any U.S. president during his second term can take a stronger position and act in a more decisive manner, and that is exactly what Barack meant," Medvedev said. "But if we talk about the subject itself, it is extremely difficult, and so far we don't see any flexibility. There are no easy solutions in terms of anti-missile defense. There is no flexibility. We have not changed our previous positions. The U.S. has one opinion, and the Russian Federation, unfortunately, has a different opinion. These positions are not getting any closer."

Some in Congress are concerned that Biden and Donilon, in their upcoming meetings with Russian leaders, will define exactly what that "flexibility" might mean and propose unilateral reductions in U.S. nuclear stockpiles or alterations to U.S. missile-defense plans as an enticement for Russia to sit down for new talks.

"Ahead of your unannounced  discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov this weekend in Munich, and prior to Mr. Donilon's forthcoming February discussions in Moscow, I write seeking your assurance as to President Obama's plans for future potential U.S. arms reductions," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, wrote in a letter to Biden Wednesday that was obtained by The Cable.

Following the bitter and lengthy fight in 2010 over ratification of New START, the U.S.-Russia treaty that capped the number of strategic deployed nuclear weapons on both sides and renewed an intricate verification regime, Rogers and other Republicans are worried that the Obama administration might not pursue a new treaty, but rather strike a deal with Russia that won't have to be approved by Congress ... or just reduce U.S. nuclear stockpiles unilaterally.

Rogers pointed out in the letter that as a senator in 2002, Biden joined with Sen. Jesse Helms to write to then Secretary of State Colin Powell to remind him that "with the exception of the SALT 1 agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution."

"Mr. Secretary, we see no reason whatsoever to alter this practice," Biden and Helms wrote at the time.

Donilon intends to transmit a personal letter to Putin from Obama "articulating his plans for further U.S. arms reductions and perhaps even agreements about U.S. missile defenses to entice Russia to the negotiating table," Rogers wrote.

The National Security Staff and the Office of the Vice President declined to comment for this story and declined to offer any response to Rogers's letter.

Russia experts acknowledge that a new arms control agreement with Moscow will be difficult but say that the White House is committed to exploring whether it is possible. Obama is personally driving this policy and sees nuclear weapons reductions, as spelled out in his 2009 speech in Prague, as part of his legacy.

"The Donilon visit seems to be all about the next round [of nuclear reduction negotiations]," said Samuel Charap, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who until recently worked in the arms control office at the State Department. "The president is serious about the whole Prague agenda thing. He wasn't making that up."

There is no clarity on which types of weapons might be included in the next round of U.S.-Russia arms control negotiations, but the administration is said to be open to including strategic deployed nukes, strategic non-deployed nukes, tactical nukes, and missile defense in the talks.

"The question is what kind of package you can put together with those four pieces to make a deal and what's the point of the deal," Charap said. "It's harder to make a compelling case to arms control skeptics here and there about why you need another agreement now. There's going to have to be a three-way balancing act between the interagency, Congress, and the Russians -- if the administration decides to pursue a new treaty."

Stephen Pifer of the Brookings Institution recently released a report and an article spelling out some ideas for how a deal could be done outside the framework of a formal treaty that would have to be ratified by the U.S. Senate. The crux of the deal would be a cooperative agreement between NATO and Russia on missile defense, Pifer argued.

"Experts from the Pentagon and Russian Defense Ministry reportedly held productive exchanges in early 2011 regarding what a cooperative missile defense arrangement would entail... Progress slowed in spring 2011, when Russia took the position that it required a ‘legal guarantee' that U.S. missile defenses would not be directed against Russian strategic forces," he wrote.

"If Moscow is prepared to move off of its requirement for a legal guarantee, and Washington and NATO are prepared to show some greater transparency and flexibility in their approach, one can see the elements of a compromise that would allow agreement on a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense arrangement." 

If the missile-defense issue were removed as an obstacle, a path toward an agreement on further nuclear weapons reductions would open up, the theory goes.

The State Department's International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), which reports to acting Under Secretary for Arms Control Rose Gottemoeller, issued a report last November spelling out how further nuclear reductions might be achieved, with or without the cooperation of the Senate or the Russians.

The ISAB presented options for three scenarios: "completing the New START Treaty reductions early; working with Russia on transparency and verification of nonstrategic nuclear weapons; and engaging in parallel nuclear arms reductions to levels below New START, if Russia is willing to reciprocate." 

"Unilateral and coordinated reductions can be quicker and less politically costly ... relative to treaties with adversarial negotiations and difficult ratification processes," the report stated.

Administration critics are already preparing to fight any attempt by the White House to push forward with nuclear reductions absent the consent of the Senate.

"Senators should block end-runs around the Constitution's treaty clause," wrote Bush administration officials John Bolton and John Yoo in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month. "An informal agreement would prevent effective congressional scrutiny of the unwise rush to slash the nuclear arsenal, America's ultimate national-security safeguard and a crucial buttress of world peace."

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

The Chuck Hagel confirmation whip count

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel testifies Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his bid to become the next defense secretary, and behind the scenes, senators are quietly lining up on both sides of the confirmation fight.

The White House seems confident that Hagel, after gaining the public endorsements of key Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), is on a glide path to confirmation. Hagel has been working the halls of the Senate diligently, meeting with senators from both parties. Several key Democrats have announced their support and some officials argue that this foretells a confirmation victory for Hagel and President Barack Obama.

"Senator Hagel's meetings on the Hill are going very well, and that's why you saw over the past two weeks a number of strong endorsements," an official working on the confirmation told The Cable, pointing to the strong support for Hagel within the Democratic caucus. 

But only one GOP senator has come out in support -- Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) -- and several Republicans have promised to oppose Hagel's nomination. Dozens of other Republican senators are keeping their powder dry, refusing to say on the record which way they are leaning. They are being lobbied hard by their colleagues and several well-heeled outside interest groups.

Most undecided senators point to Thursday's hearing as the measure of whether or not they will ultimately support Hagel. But despite their reluctance to commit, staffers and operatives working on both sides of the confirmation battle have a good idea about which senators are likely to vote which way.

Some GOP senators have firmly stated their opposition to Hagel's confirmation and will not back down. They include Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK), David Vitter (R-LA), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Dan Coats (R-IN) and John Cornyn (R-TX). Asked Tuesday if he would block Hagel or just vote against him, Inhofe said, "One step at a time."

Cornyn is said to be leading the anti-Hagel effort inside the GOP caucus, according to multiple Senate aides. In a brief interview with The Cable, Cornyn said he was talking to other senators about Hagel "just on a personal basis."

"It's not a leadership position, but I'm opposed to the Hagel nomination," he said.

Several other GOP senators have strongly indicated they will oppose the Hagel nomination but have not explicitly promised to vote no. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has criticized the nomination several times and said this week he would block a vote until Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Benghazi, though a hearing is not yet scheduled. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) penned a blistering Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing Hagel last week. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) has said he has "deep concerns" about the Hagel nomination.

"We had a nice, healthy talk. Y'all just should just show up Thursday," Graham said Tuesday after meeting with Hagel.

GOP senators and their aides are predicting a confrontational hearing and claim that the committee might approve Hagel on a party-line vote, with all or nearly all GOP committee members voting against him. Several other GOP senators are said to be leaning to oppose the nomination, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Kelly Ayotte (R-AZ), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and several others. (Cruz, along with Inhofe and Cornyn, was one of only three senators to vote Tuesday against John Kerry's nomination to be secretary of state.)

A limited number of GOP senators are now the target of intense lobbying because they have not clearly indicated, even privately, which way they are leaning. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) are the two most influential in this group. McCain, a former "close friend" of Hagel's, has been critical of the nominee's stance on Iran, while Corker, a staunch supporter of nuclear modernization, has repeatedly and disapprovingly invoked Hagel's commitment to nuclear force reductions.

"It was a pleasant conversation," McCain said Tuesday after meeting with Hagel for 45 minutes. Asked if Hagel had addressed his McCain's concerns, McCain said, "No he has not."

Corker met with Hagel Jan. 25 for 53 minutes and still declined to endorse him for the Pentagon job. "These hearings matter a great deal to me," Corker told The Cable. "I spent a lot of time with Hagel on Friday talking about nuclear modernization... You shouldn't take pro or con from this conversation."

The Cable asked Corker if Hagel was modifying his positions on subjects like Iran, Israel, and nukes out of political expediency in order to get confirmed.

"That's a very good point and we'll certainly be tuned in to see if that's the case," Corker replied.

Other fence-sitters include Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Rand Paul (R-KY), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Richard Burr (R-NC), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Chuck Grassley (R-IO), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also not weighed in on the Hagel nomination.

Collins met with Hagel for 90 minutes last week and told The Cable Tuesday she would reserve judgment on the nomination until after the hearing.

"We had a good discussion, but it's obvious that we have very different views on some fundamental issues," Collins said. "So I want to hear more from him on a number of issues and the hearing affords that opportunity."

The anti-Hagel forces are keeping up the pressure, for example by having 400 members of the group Christians United for Israel lobbying senators on Capitol Hill this week.

There's a wide recognition that Hagel's confirmation hearing is going to be contentious. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said this week that there might actually have to be two hearings to air all the committee members' concerns.

"It depends on whether we don't have enough time, or something shows up [during the back-and-forth] that requires a second hearing," Levin said.

Even with dozens of GOP senators voting no, the conventional wisdom remains that Hagel will ultimately get confirmed, even if it is with a historically low, but nevertheless filibuster-proof majority.

For Hagel's opposition, the best-case scenario is that only a few Republicans break ranks and a couple of Democrats do break ranks, giving the Hagel opposition the 40 votes needed to filibuster the vote on the nomination. They recognize that is unlikely and a filibuster of a cabinet nominee is extremely rare, but they plan to continue their effort well past Hagel's confirmation hearing, hoping that more embarrassing quotes from Hagel's past surface or a new scandal comes to light.

"There's a lot of White House spin about Hagel's clear path to confirmation, but they have a real fight on their hands -- and they know it," one GOP source close to the committee said.

For the team of officials, staffers, and outsiders working to bolster the Hagel nomination, they believe that Hagel's Thursday testimony will take the wind out of the sails of the opposition and set the record straight on the former senator's views.

"It's unfortunate that you have a number of senators that decided to take a very public very aggressive position weeks ahead of the confirmation hearing without actually speaking to the nominee," one Hagel supporter close to the process told The Cable. "This hearing is the first honest opportunity for Hagel to explain his positions, defend his record out in the open, and he will forcefully address much of the misinformation about his record that has been advanced by a small minority of folks on the Hill."

"We think we are in a good, strong position going forward, but nobody takes anything for granted in this business," an official working on behalf of the confirmation effort added.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images