The Russian Duma delivered two embarrassing blows to the Obama administration over the holidays on the START treaty, one of which may end up scotching the deal altogether.  First, the Russian legislature refused to do what Barack Obama insisted of the US Senate, which was a quick ratification.  More importantly, however, the Duma will do what Senate Republicans wanted, which was to amend the treaty to clarify the relationship between START and missile defense.  However, the Duma’s changes will link the two and recast START into a de facto anti-missile defense pact:

The State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) plans to confirm the link between the reduction of the strategic offensive arms and the restriction of antimissile defense systems’ deployment in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed between the US and Russia, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma Committee on International Affairs says.

“During the ratification of START in the US Congress the American lawmakers noted that the link between strategic offensive armed forces and antimissile defense systems is not juridically binding for the parties. They referred to the fact that this link was fixed only in the preamble of the document. Such an approach can be regarded as the US’ attempt to find an option to build up its strategic potential and the Russian lawmakers cannot agree with this,” Kosachev says.

Remember when the pact’s supporters insisted that the preamble didn’t carry any legal weight?  The Duma begs to differ:

We will deal with these interpretations. The first thing is that our American colleagues do not recognize the legal force of the treaty’s preamble. The preamble sets a link between strategic offensive arms and defensive arms. The second thing is an attempt to interpret certain provisions of the treaty unilaterally.

The Russian lawmakers insist that all the chapters of the treaty including the preamble are legally binding, which is a common norm of international law. It is not lawful to take certain provisions and to give them unilateral interpretations like the American senators do, Alexei Arbatov, a member of the Carnegie Scientific Council, says.

This is our reaction on the US steps, which are not justified because you cannot selectively validate or invalidate certain provisions of the treaty. We are quite consistent here. We said that the entire treaty, the preamble and the articles have the same judicial force. This is logical and this is right.

That was, of course, the Republican argument in the lame-duck session, which Democrats and the White House dismissed as game-playing on national defense.  Brian Faughnan at Liberty Central reminds us that the White House created no small level of confusion on this very point with its refusal to share notes:

It is not surprising that there are differences in interpretation of the treaty between the Russian and the American side. Russia insisted on inserting missile defense provisions into the preamble, making it obvious that they viewed this provision as having some importance. Yet the White House has stated that it is non-binding. And to further complicate matters, the administration denied the Senate the opportunity to understand the dispute better, by refusing to share treaty negotiating documents. Now that the Senate has approved the treaty without first understanding how it would be implemented, the Russian Duma will attempt to modify the accord to impose missile defense restrictions — as critics of the accord predicted would happen.

The START Treaty ratification process is already a mess. And it is a mess because the Obama administration was not candid about the meaning of the agreement. If the Duma alters the accord in an attempt to impose new restrictions on America’s defensive capabilities, the Obama administration will have a full-blown diplomatic incident on its hands.

The Duma might in fact reinvigorate START opposition in the Senate, and at the worst possible time.  Any alteration to the treaty will force a new ratification vote, and clearly Obama would have lacked the signatures in the last session of Congress for missile-defense restrictions.  With his 18-seat majority reduced to six seats, the new session of the Senate won’t approve it either, and it won’t even be close.  If the Duma follows through on this threat, then Obama will suffer an embarrassing defeat on foreign policy, essentially conducting a rerun on more substantial grounds of the “reset button” embarrassment from two years ago.

Even if the Duma doesn’t formally alter the treaty, though, Obama’s credibility will be shot.  They will have been publicly caught arguing one thing to the Senate while apparently agreeing to its opposite with Russia.  The next time Obama brings a treaty of any consequence and controversy to the Senate, don’t expect the Senate to just accept Obama’s word …. and don’t expect it to pass ratification, either.