It's one of the signature issues of President Obama's second term, and Edward Snowden may have caused it to crack.
On Thursday, nuclear arms control advocates shuddered as Washington erupted in rage over Russia's decision to grant temporary asylum to the former NSA contractor. With Republicans in Congress demanding retaliation and White House officials openly casting doubt on a planned Moscow summit, the worry is that Obama's ambitious goal of reducing deployed strategic nuclear weapons by one-third may have just flown out the window.
"It's one of the president's key legacy issues and the Russians are in no uncertain terms critical partners for it," Matt Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center, told The Cable. "I don't know how they pull it off now. The idea of lowering deployed numbers is substantially weakened if you don't have a Russian counterpart."
For Kingston Reif, a director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, an already difficult situation just got a whole lot worse. "There have always been ups and downs in the US and Russia relationship [but] we appear to be in one of those down periods," he told The Cable. "The prospects for major progress on a modus vivendi on missile defense and a framework for further nuclear weapons reductions during the President's planned visit to Moscow in September weren't particularly high to begin with."
Today, both White House and State Department officials noted their "extreme" disappointment with Russia for refusing to return Snowden to the U.S. On top of that, spokesman Jay Carney said "We are evaluating the utility of a summit," referring to Obama's scheduled visit to Moscow ahead of the G-20 gathering in St. Petersburg next month. "We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful request in public and in private," Carney said.
Meanwhile, Russia hawks in Congress fired off a volley of press releases condemning the Kremlin. "[Obama] should immediately announce that he will not meet one-on-one with the Russian president at the upcoming G-20 Summit in Russia in September," Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said in one such statement. Ranking member Eliot Engel added that the Russians "must understand that there will be a strong U.S. response to this." Going further, Sen. John McCain called on the U.S. to "fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin's Russia" while Sen. Lindsey Graham called on the U.S. to expand NATO membership to Georgia and complete a controversial missile defense shield in Europe.
For non-proliferation advocates, the Snowden disruption reverberates given the fact that the U.S. and Russia possess more than 90 percent of the nuclear weapons on the planet. In his Berlin speech in June, Obama punctuated his goal of a one-third reduction in deployed strategic warheads below the New Start treaty levels with Russia. He also expressed an interest in pursuing reductions with Russia in nonstrategic nuclear weapons. "Achieving these goals requires Russian cooperation, not stonewalling," said Reif. "Given the disproportionate size of the US and Russian arsenals, further bilateral reductions are necessary to bring other nuclear weapons states into the arms control process, most notably China."
Still, a State Department official familiar with nuclear issues emphasized that the president's nuclear reduction goals could still be salvaged. "Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we continued to work on nuclear limitations and strategic stability because it was in our national security interest. Not anybody else's," said the official.
Rojanksy suspects that if the Russians prove too difficult to work with, Obama may simply make a personal legacy call and reduce U.S. stockpiles unilaterally. "If they have no other choice, they may make this a defining legacy issue," said Rojanksy, noting that president's often look to foreign policy achievements to boost their second term profiles. "At this point, Obama got bin Laden, he kind of successfully wound down Iraq and Afghanistan, though the jury is still very much out. You'd have to be naive to think he's going to have Israel-Palestine. He doesn't have Iran and he obviously doesn't have Syria," he said. "That's a pretty short list of foreign policy accomplishments, which makes unilateral reductions more attractive."
However, State Department officials insisted the Snowden controversy doesn't have to undermine the relationship as a whole. "We're not going to stop engaging with them on Syria, on the way forward, on missile defense, on any of these issues because one meeting does or does not happen," said spokeswoman Marie Harf. "In light of the fact that they have taken such action, it behooves us to evaluate where the relationship is, whether the summit makes sense. But again, I don't want to get ahead of any decision on that at this point."