The first strategic arms control talks between Washington and Moscow were handled poorly by the Nixon White House. President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger didn’t trust their bureaucracy or U.S. negotiators, which they sent off on wild goose chases while they engaged in backchannel deals with the Kremlin. Many of the harshest critics of the resulting SALT I accords were individuals who were involved in the process and embarrassed or enraged by the process and its results.

Some U.S. officials, including SALT I negotiator Gerard Smith, proposed a freeze on new construction at the outset of negotiations. This was rejected by the Nixon White House, and may well have been unacceptable to the Kremlin, as well, which was building new ICBM silos and modernizing its forces at a far more rapid rate than the Pentagon. U.S. negotiators were unable to place tough restrictions on ICBM modernization so, recognizing the linkages between strategic missile defenses which were seriously constrained by the ABM Treaty, and strategic offenses which were barely constrained, the Nixon administration resorted to a “unilateral statement” in an effort to leverage Moscow. Here’s the text of unilateral statement D on “heavy” ICBMs, issued by the U.S. delegation on May 26, 1972:

The U.S. Delegation regrets that the Soviet Delegation has not been willing to agree on a common definition of a heavy missile. Under these circumstances, the U.S. Delegation believes it necessary to state the following: The United States would consider any ICBM having a volume significantly greater than that of the largest light ICBM now operational on either side to be a heavy ICBM. The United States proceeds on the premise that the Soviet side will give due account to this consideration.

The Kremlin proceeded to modernize its “light” SS-11 ICBMs into far more capable, MIRVed SS-19 missiles, notwithstanding the toothless U.S. unilateral statement. Soviet actions and the U.S. unilateral statement subsequently became the basis for heated assertions of Soviet noncompliance or, at a minimum, bad faith, with the SALT I Interim Agreement.

Here’s what Ambassador Smith had to say about this controversy in his book, Doubletalk:

It is true that the Soviets have not conformed to the U.S. unilateral definition of a heavy missile. But the Soviet Union has not violated the agreement. Ungrounded U.S. expectations are responsible for this particular delusion. The Soviet delegation had repeatedly refused to accept our proposed definition. They told us informally that they would be deploying new MIRVed missiles of a larger volume in their SS-11 silo launchers. After signing the SALT agreements, Brezhnev advised President Nixon that the Soviet Union would proceed with its missile modernization program as permitted by the agreement. In view of this record, the Soviet ICBM replacement activities under the freeze are not as surprising as the White House’s assurances in June 1972 that there were adequate safeguards in its agreement against substitution of heavy missiles (presumably as we had defined them) for light ones.

In the recently concluded New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the shoe is on the other foot: The United States is proceeding with purposeful, necessary upgrades of theater missile defenses oriented toward the Iranian and North Korean missile programs. Moscow feels uncomfortable with U.S. BMD programs, and seeks to constrain them. The Obama administration has clarified in numerous exchanges with Russian leaders and negotiators, as well as in a unilateral statement that is reportedly attached to the agreement, that these activities are outside the scope of treaty limitations. The Kremlin has repeatedly expressed its reservations, along with a reaffirmation of its right to withdraw from the treaty, in a parallel unilateral statement.

Enter Senators Kyl, McCain and Ensign, who have written a letter to national security advisor James Jones dated February 17, 2010, with the following warning:

It would be very troubling, for example, if the treaty included a provision that would allow Russia to withdraw from the treaty if it felt threatened by U.S. missile defense capabilities, for example, if it felt that ‘strategic stability’ was upset by a deployment by the United States. Even as a unilateral declaration, a provision like this would put pressure on the United States to limit its systems or their deployment because of Russian threats of withdrawal from the treaty.

We ask your assurance that the Administration will not agree to any such provisions, even a unilateral Russian declaration, in the treaty text or otherwise that could limit U.S. missile defenses in any way.

Throwing mud against the wall and seeing what sticks is a time-honored approach to messing up treaty ratification. As noted in this space previously, no-one did this more effectively against the SALT I accords than Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

If the mud sticks in this instance, Senators will be sending a very unfortunate message abroad – that the United States of America can be spooked by unilateral statements that have no legal or practical effect. They will also be giving unintended credence to the canard that Moscow has veto rights over U.S. ballistic missile defense programs.

The United States can and will continue to improve BMD capabilities on the basis of threat perceptions, technical, cost and cost-effectiveness grounds. The legislative branch will continue to be a very active participant and the final arbiter of these decisions, courtesy of its powers of the purse.

The Russian unilateral statement in New START will no doubt be accorded the same “due account” as the Kremlin gave to the Nixon administration’s statement on heavy missiles in 1972.