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Wages of Dysfunction: US Loses Russian Nuclear Base Inspection

Sometimes, due to our dysfunctional legislative branch, issues that they should consider and determine get kicked up to the executive. The EPA will try a carbon-regulation program instead of a law passed by Congress. The Federal Reserve, through monetary policy, will try to pull America out of recession, instead of continued fiscal policy.

But sometimes, that option doesn’t exist, and legislative delay just produces negative outcomes. The US and Russia negotiated and signed a follow-on nuclear arms treaty four months ago, but the Senate hasn’t even held hearings on ratification in the relevant committee yet. So, because new START is not yet in place as the original START treaty expired, we lost the ability to inspect Russian nuclear sites, making the world objectively less safe.

For the first time in 15 years, U.S. officials have lost their ability to inspect Russian long-range nuclear bases, where they had become accustomed to peering into missile silos, counting warheads and whipping out tape measures to size up rockets.

The inspections had occurred every few weeks under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But when START expired in December, the checks stopped.

Meanwhile, in an obscure, fluorescent-lighted State Department office staffed round-the-clock, a stream of messages from Russia about routine movements of its nuclear missiles and bombers has slowed to a trickle.

The Obama administration hopes the inspections and messages will soon resume under the New START agreement, which was signed by the two countries in April. But the pact is on hold in the Senate. If it faces long delays, or is voted down, the U.S. government will lose critical insight into Russia’s nuclear forces, officials say.

My favorite part of this is when Jon Kyl says “I thought we were just going to continue doing business as usual” and continue inspections with no agreement in place, as if that’s how international verification regimes work.

The know-nothingness of people like Kyl has real consequences, however. While Russia isn’t likely to lob over a nuclear missile anytime soon, their bomb sites aren’t exactly secure from the transfer of fissile material to any number of rogue actors around the world. And while radar and satellite information can tell you something about nuclear bases, it cannot tell you everything. Simply put, there’s no substitute for human intelligence and inspectors, the kind of verification that exists in new START.

Mitch McConnell says that losing vital intelligence capability is “not an argument for voting” on new START. It’s also not an argument for endless delays and obstruction. He may not want to carry the consequences of this, but they exist with a dysfunctional Senate.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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