The confusion over the START agreement heated up into an international dispute yesterday as the White House finally responded to Russian declarations that the treaty specifically limits the US on missile defense.  Yesterday, I noted that the chair of the Duma’s International Affairs committee stated last week that Russia considered the preamble, with its language on limiting defensive systems to today’s status quo, legally binding.  The government-run Voice of Russia pointedly quoted chair Konstantin Kosachev yesterday to make the official position on the treaty clear.  Jake Tapper asked the White House to explain the confusion, and the Obama administration insisted that the Russians have it wrong:

An official of the lower house of the Duma says that as it ratifies the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START, the Russian parliament will reaffirm that the treaty limits U.S. plans for missile defense, contrary to the stated position of U.S. officials.

Asked for comment, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor tells ABC News, “The President sent a letter to the Senate on December 18th that said: ‘The New Start Treaty places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs.’ That remains the case.” …

In April, Sergei Prikhodko –- Russia President Dmitri Medvedev’s senior foreign policy adviser stated that Russian “negotiators had to insert the inextricable connection between strategic offensive and strategic defensive armaments (i.e. missile defense) into the treaty. This was successfully fulfilled and the importance of this connection when reducing strategic offensive armaments will be included in the treaty and be legally binding…”  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had also stated that “linkage to missile defense is clearly spelled out in the accord and is legally binding.”

Are they wrong? ABC News asked a senior Obama administration official at the time.

“Yes,” was the reply.

Well, someone’s wrong about START, and the Russians think it’s us.  Usually, this kind of confusion gets resolved during treaty negotiations, not after one side has already ratified the pact and the other is about to do the same.  Apparently, one or both sides brought negotiators who weren’t very good at negotiating.

This leaves us with very little assurance that Obama has not bargained away missile defense.  Their argument, that the preamble is not legally binding, is rather weak.  Certainly the preamble exists for a reason; if Obama wanted to protect missile defense, why allow it to be mentioned at all?  Doesn’t the existence of the at-least confusing language in the preamble have any meaning, and if it didn’t, why even bother to have a preamble?  Clearly, the Russians wanted that language and wanted the preamble, and someone on the American side should have given that enough thought to understand that the Russians would find it meaningful.

Here is the passage in the treaty that the Russians insist is a limitation on further development of missile defense, emphasis mine:

Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties,

In other words, the Russians accepted current missile defense systems, but no further innovation will be acceptable.  They see missile defense advances as a threat to their own nuclear deterrent, especially since they cannot afford to develop their own strategic missile defense.  Nor do they want to start spending tons of money on catching up to us in that area; the Russian economy is weak enough without running up even more government debt.  This is a key point for them, and apparently a deal-killer, which is presumably why the Obama administration allowed the language into the treaty.  They wanted the START treaty so badly that they were willing to give up development of missile defense for it.

Now it has blown up in their faces.  The Russians will ratify it, but with additional language emphasizing the limitation on missile defense.  If they amend the treaty with that language, Obama will have to take it back to the Senate for re-ratification, which will not be forthcoming.  If the Russians just add commentary emphasizing their position, Obama won’t need to go back to the Senate, but the treaty won’t survive his presidency.  If Congress forces Obama to continue missile defense development, the Russians may pull out even before the next election.  Either way, START and the White House fumble on missile defense has become an embarrassment, another “reset button” for “smart power.”