- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 8, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told lawmakers Wednesday he expects Russia to abide by a new nuclear arms treaty, but Russia’s not doing so could wreck chances for future agreements.

In a newly declassified letter provided to the Associated Press, Mr. Gates wrote that he and the top U.S. military leadership have concluded that Russia will not be able to achieve “militarily significant cheating” under the New START treaty.

Some Republicans have questioned the value of the treaty and expressed concern about whether Russian compliance can be adequately ensured. The Obama administration has made a strong pitch for Senate ratification, arguing that it serves U.S. national security interests and that key allies in Eastern and Central Europe view the treaty as a symbol of U.S.-Russian cooperation.

In remarks Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she regrets that the Senate debate over the treaty had become political.

“It’s a political issue,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I wish it weren’t,” since previous arms treaties have passed the Senate by wide margins.

“I hope that at the end of the day the Senate will say, you know, some things should just be beyond any kind of election or partisan calculation … and we’ll get that START treaty done,” she said.

Mr. Gates wrote that the Obama administration expects Russia to adhere fully to the treaty’s limits. The pact would shrink the limit on strategic warheads to 1,550 for each country, down about a third from the current ceiling of 2,200. A previous treaty on strategic arms limits expired in December.

“Any Russian cheating could affect the sustainability of the New START treaty, the viability of future arms control agreements, and the ability of the U.S. and Russia to work together on other issues,” Mr. Gates wrote.

Mr. Gates‘ message was intended to allay concerns raised by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, at a July 20 congressional hearing at which Mr. McCain responded incredulously to Pentagon statements that even large-scale Russian cheating on New START was of little military concern.

“Why have a treaty?” Mr. McCain asked, if cheating matters little.

Mr. Gates sought to address that matter more fully in his letter, dated July 30 and addressed to Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Kerry’s committee is scheduled to meet next week to determine whether to advance the treaty to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote on ratification. Observers say a floor vote is unlikely before the November elections.

Mr. Gates’s letter was provided Wednesday to other members of Mr. Kerry’s committee and to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The two-page letter originally was classified; by blacking out one paragraph, the Pentagon declassified it.

If Russia were to cheat on the New START, the Pentagon could respond by putting its doomsday submarines and bombers on higher alert and arming them with extra nuclear warheads, Mr. Gates wrote.

“Therefore, the survivable and flexible” U.S. offensive nuclear arsenal will “help deter any future Russian leaders from cheating or breakout from the treaty, should they ever have such an inclination,” the Pentagon chief wrote.

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