WASHINGTON — Senate approval Wednesday of a nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia has boosted President Barack Obama's long-shot initiative to rid the world of nuclear weapons and salvaged his drive to improve U.S.-Russian ties, experts said.
Fulfilling his call for a "reset" of the chilly relationship with Moscow, Obama's victory could also help in two U.S.-led initiatives that rely on Russian cooperation — to curb Iran's nuclear program and to prevent terrorists from stealing nuclear materials.
There are obstacles to accords in any of these areas, but Obama can pursue them with an enhanced image for himself and his government.
"There is a bigger audience out there. If we hadn't done this with the Russians, Obama looks impotent and the United States looks more uncertain, unpredictable and untrustworthy to the rest of the world," said Tom Fingar, who served until last year as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which prepares presidential intelligence assessments.
Experts across the spectrum expressed relief, if not euphoria.
"It's a modest but useful agreement," said Steven Hadley, the national security adviser in President George W. Bush's second term. "I think the biggest thing is that it avoids some downsides if it had been actually rejected by the Senate."
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, who steered the pact through the Senate, said the 71-26 approval of New START "makes a statement about the United States of America as a whole, not just the president. It says we're a country in which, even in contentious times, where 100 senators have a responsibility, 71 of them came together . . . and articulated the direction the U.S. wants to go with respect to nuclear weapons. That's going to be critical in shaping opinion on a global basis."
Obama's ambitious agenda still faces potential landmines.
It will be much harder for Washington and Moscow to reach agreement on cutting their arsenals to levels lower than those imposed by New START on operational warheads and delivery vehicles. The pact limits the sides to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic warheads on 700 bombers and land- and sea-based ballistic missiles within seven years.
Moreover, renewed frictions could arise over the Kremlin's growing authoritarian rule, repression of opposition parties, independent media and human rights activists, and its foot-dragging on legal and financial overhauls sought by international companies.
"Suppose there was a swing toward rabid nationalism in Russia. I think the comfort level over further (nuclear arms) reductions would be much less," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter.
There also are unresolved disputes dividing Washington and Moscow, like Obama's plan to deploy missile defenses in Europe, which Moscow worries could be used to neutralize its nuclear deterrent.
Obama won 13 Republican votes Wednesday, but a narrower Democratic majority in the Senate next year will make it harder to gain the two-thirds majority needed for his next arms control priority: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing underground nuclear test blasts.
"The test ban treaty in the current atmosphere, in the current context, is a very, very difficult process," Kerry said. "A whole lot of educating has to go on . . . It's way to early to begin to second guess or start to scope out what's going to (happen)."
The Senate failed to approve the treaty in 1999. Obama pledged to "aggressively pursue" its ratification in the April 2009 speech he delivered in Czech Republic capital of Prague, in which he declared his goal of eliminating the world's nuclear weapons.
Approval of New START also will encourage Russian support for a U.S.-led effort to use sanctions against Iran to compel its compliance with United Nations demands to halt uranium enrichment. The process produces fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.
Tehran is unlikely to bend, but by reducing its own nuclear weapons, the U.S. will be better able to marshal international isolation of the Iranian regime, said Steve Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the center-left Brookings Institution's Arms Control Initiative.
The U.S. also will be in a stronger position to push Obama's initiative to secure by 2014 all of the world's nuclear weapons materials that are vulnerable to theft by terrorists.
If New START had been defeated, other countries would argue "why should we give up our nuclear option?" Pifer said.
Administration officials have cast New START as a necessary step to negotiations with Moscow on a far more ambitious accord to slash strategic and tactical — or battlefield — nuclear weapons, deployed and reserve, to around 1,000 each.
But most experts agree that it will be a hard slog.
Nikolai Sokov, a member of the Russian teams that negotiated the START I and START II treaties, said the "drama" surrounding the Senate's handling of New START "will make the Russians think twice how much they want to engage in the next stage."
Moscow is likely to agree to new arms talks soon, "but they'll wait out 2012" to see if Obama is re-elected before negotiating in earnest, said Sokov, a senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies' James Martin Center for Proliferation Studies.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the pro-arms control Ploughshares Fund, said the administration would like to secure an accord by a 2015 conference on bolstering the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the global system to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
"The easy step was (New) START," he said.
Some experts believe that as its conventional military strength has eroded, Russia has become more reliant on its estimated 5,390 tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S. has an estimated 500 tactical warheads.
"Given that the Russians have a 10-to-1 advantage (in tactical warheads), it's hard to figure out how you would negotiate away that kind of advantage without having to pay something that we shouldn't pay, like constraints on missile defense," Hadley said.
It's in Russia's interest, however, to cut its tactical nuclear weapons stocks to reduce the danger of a warhead falling into terrorists' hands, he said.
(David Lightman contributed to this article.)
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