US and Russia sign historic nuclear deal

US and Russia sign historic nuclear deal. Sudan elections in doubt as more opposition parties boycott. Kyrgyz opposition sets up ‘peoples’ government’. Al-Qaeda officials move from Yemen into Somalia. All this and much more in today’s security briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
8 April 2010

The US and Russian presidents signed an historic nuclear disarmament treaty today in Prague. The agreement replaces the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired in December 2009.

President Obama described the signing as “an important milestone for nuclear security and non-proliferation”, while President Medvedev called it a “truly historic event”. The signing took place one year after Obama first outlined his vision of a nuclear free world in a speech also made in Prague, which later won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

The agreement commits both parties to cut their numbers of deployed warheads by 30 percent from levels set by a 2002 US-Russian nuclear deal, reducing both countries’ arsenals to 1,550 nuclear warheads over seven years.

The openSecurity verdict: Although this agreement is ostensibly the first step toward achieving Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning vision of a nuclear free world, it is not at all clear that the deal signed today in Prague is as ground-breaking as it may first appear.

During the press conference after the signing, Obama himself emphasised that this was only the first step towards what he hoped would be deeper cuts in nuclear stockpiles. Indeed, there seems to be general agreement amongst analysts that this is but the start of a much broader conversation that needs to take place if nuclear weapons really are to be eliminated.

For starters, the treaty still has to be ratified in both countries’ legislatures. There is a real chance that the Russians will pull out of the deal if they are unhappy with Obama’s revised missle defence shield in Europe, aimed at countering a potential Iranian threat. Similarly, Republicans, angered by Obama's broader nuclear strategy, are likely to oppose the deal in the US Senate.

It is widely acknowledged that the substance of this particular deal is not likely to dramatically change the face of nuclear diplomacy any time soon. Richard Weitze, director of the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Political-Military Analysis, described the treaty as “not so substantive” in terms of actual cuts to nuclear repositories.

While Obama is apparently dedicated to deeper cuts in nuclear stockpiles, a recent Washington Post report suggests that the same does not apply to conventional weapons. According to the report, the Pentagon is developing a new missile, known as Prompt Global Strike, that could deliver conventional warheads anywhere in the world within an hour. So although Obama may be committed to removing nuclear weapons from the world, he does not appear to feel the same way about other extremely destructive forms of weaponry, which due to technological advances are capable of inflicting greater destruction than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Commentators feel that Prompt Guard Strike would effectively stop the gap left by reductions in nuclear arsenals, and in some ways nullify the minor step forward that today’s deal represents.

Obama will have to weigh his desires for more extensive nuclear cuts against his need for Russian support on tougher action against Iran. Given the flack that Obama is already facing at home for his ‘soft’ approaches on Iran, Burma and a whole host of other issues, it’s unlikely he will forego Russian support for harsher sanctions on Iran for the sake of his vision of a nuclear-free world.

Sudan elections in doubt

Another major opposition party in Sudan yesterday announced its decision to boycott Sudan’s first multiparty elections in almost 25 years, further casting into doubt the elections and peace process that underpins it. The Umma Party, the largest opposition group in northern Sudan, “decided to boycott the current elections at all levels”, according to a spokesman. The party’s decision comes hot on the heels of the full electoral boycott announced by the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party on Tuesday. Over the last week, several smaller opposition parties such as the Communist Party also announced boycotts of the polls.

The presidential, legislative and gubernatorial polls, a central tenet of a 2005 peace agreement which brought over twenty years of civil war to an end, are due to begin on Sunday. However, widespread election boycotts have called the credibility of these elections into dispute.

The Umma Party had demanded President Omar al-Bashir meet eight conditions, including a four-week delay in the elections and state funding for political parties, by 6April before it would participate in the forthcoming elections. None of the party’s conditions save one, which capped campaign spending, were met. It is feared that the withdrawal of many major opposition parties will hand the election to Bashir. His main rival, Yasir Arman, pulled out of the presidential race last week, accusing Bashir of widespread fraud.

In an equally worrying development, the European Union yesterday withdrew its electoral observers from Darfur, citing intensified fighting and kidnappings that were restricting the ability of its staff to observe election preparations, and which risked “putting the credibility of the whole mission in danger.”

It is likely that elections dominated by Bashir’s incumbent National Congress Party will lack international credibility. Many commentators also feel that unless Bashir can win multiparty elections, he will be unable to legitimise his rule and continue to defy an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment against him on war crimes charges.

Kyrgyz opposition sets up ‘peoples’ government’

The Kyrgyz opposition, which led an uprising in the poor but strategically important central Asian state earlier this week, today announced that it has dissolved parliament and established an interim government. Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva said that the interim government, which has taken control of security headquarters, state television and other government buildings, would remain in power until elections are held in six months’ time.

The uprising, which forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the capital, began in the provincial town of Talas two days ago and quickly spread across the country, leaving 65 dead and more than 400 injured. Popular anger at corruption, nepotism and rising prices are thought to have sparked the unrest. Otunbayeva described the events of the past few days as “our answer to the repression and tyranny against the people by the Bakiyev regime”. She also assured reporters that the interim government was fully in control of the country.  In a separate statement, Ismail Isakov, appointed interim defence minister, confirmed that the country’s armed forces and border guards are under the new government’s control.

There are reports that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has resigned, though these are not yet confirmed, and the BBC has reported that Bakiyev maintains his claim to be president of the country. Baykiev is thought to be attempting to rally support in the south, his traditional power base. Opposition leaders have called on him to resign, claiming that “his business here is over”.

Bakiyev himself was brought to power by a series of street protests in 2005, known as the Tulip revolution. However, his regime has since been mired in allegations of intimidation and corruption, leaving Bakiyev an increasingly unpopular and isolated figure.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, has already telephoned Otunbayev, effectively recognising her as head of the interim government. While there have been suspicions of Russian involvement, Moscow has firmly denied these. Other states with a strategic interest in Kyrgyzstan, namely China and the United States have condemned the violence.

Al-Qaeda officials move from Yemen into Somalia

Approximately twelve senior al-Qaeda officials are believed to have entered Somalia from Yemen in the last two weeks, in support of al-Shabab militants battling the African Union supported Mogadishu government, according to a senior government official.

Treasury Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said that government “intelligence shows twelve senior al Qaeda officials came into Somalia from Yemen in the last two weeks”. Officials in the Somali government believe that the al-Qaeda operatives were sent to investigate whether al-Qaeda could shift some of its military bases to southern Somalia. Although no other details about the identities of these officials were available, Osman requested that the international community provide urgent support to the Federal Transitional Government in Mogadishu

Separate reports indicating that the Yemen-based al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has decided to shift its positions to Somalia in the wake of a security crackdown by Yemeni authorities appear to support the fears of Somali officials. If true, these reports would also seem to confirm international fears about the existence of terrorist links between the two countries separated only by the narrow Gulf of Aden.

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