Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 153

The American and Russian presidents might have agreed in June to open discussions regarding both modifications to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and a possible START III strategic arms treaty, but when negotiators for the two sides got together in Moscow last week neither side liked what the other had to say. The terse joint statement issued after the three-day meeting gave no hint of any progress. About the best the chief U.S. delegate could say about the meeting was that the atmosphere was “businesslike.”

The Russians are particularly upset about the accelerating American program to develop and deploy a national–if limited–ground-based missile defense system. Last month President Clinton signed into law a bill directing the military to deploy such a system “as soon as technologically possible.” While the Americans have said that doing so would not violate the 1972 treaty–especially if the system could be “modified”–the chief Russian delegate to the talks, Grigory Berdennikov, said that the Russians did not see “any variant which would allow the U.S. to deploy a national anti-missile defense system and at the same time maintain the ABM treaty.” Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the hawkish head of the Defense Ministry’s international cooperation division warned that the American effort to “alter” the ABM treaty would “destroy the entire process” of nuclear arms control.” He charged that the Russians were being presented with a fait accompli in the form of the American missile programs and then being asked to modify the ABM treaty to accommodate them.

If the U.S. suggestions regarding the ABM treaty fell on deaf Russian ears, the Americans would have been less than thrilled with what were reported to be two Russian proposals. The first was to set a ceiling of 1,000 to 1,500 strategic warheads for each side under the START III treaty; the second was to ban sea-launched cruise missiles, both nuclear and conventionally armed. These missiles have become a favorite weapon of the Pentagon since the Gulf War and it is doubtful that U.S. military or political leaders would even consider renouncing them. The Americans also remain comfortable with the original START III limits of 2,000 to 2,500 warheads and are not eager to contemplate deeper cuts.

It might, in theory, be possible to modify the ABM treaty to suit both sides but the Russians have made such a political issue about its sanctity that any accommodation seems highly unlikely. The 1972 treaty, after all, has been changed once already. In 1974 the two sides signed a protocol which halved the number of deployable missiles from 200 to 100 and the number of allowed missile fields from two to one. Some American proponents of a limited national missile defense system think that the original treaty’s two fields and 200 missiles might be sufficient–while sidestepping the fact that the treaty specifically prohibits a system covering the entire country.

Other countries are being drawn into the debate. Berdennikov arrived in Beijing on August 21, where he was to discuss the American anti-missile programs. Recently both Taiwan and Japan have shown increased interest in cooperating with the Americans on regional anti-missile systems–the latter because of North Korea’s advancing missile program and the former because of the recent Chinese military posturing against the island. China has condemned both efforts and is certain to support the Russian stand regarding the ABM treaty. All of this will make it more difficult for U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev to reach an understanding when they take up the issue next month in Moscow (Russian and international media, August 18-22).