Arms Control Intersects With Russian Leadership Struggle

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 60

With the announcement of a new arms control treaty in the media, the US Senate, and the Duma will naturally focus on issues such as the numbers of warheads and delivery systems, and verification of each side’s capabilities. However, without praising or belittling the treaty, we can see from reported revelations about the negotiations that there are reasons for concern, and Washington may be missing an important dimension of Russian politics and how it influences policy making. Specifically, US negotiators were taken aback earlier this year when, immediately after thinking they had a deal, Russian negotiators promptly insisted on linking missile defenses to offenses in the treaty.

From a historical standpoint, this gambit should not have surprised the US team, since virtually all the literature on Russian and Soviet negotiating tactics points to Moscow’s tendency to demand concessions at the last minute in the belief that the other side would yield to ensure the agreement or treaty in question. However, beyond that fact, the US team, and presumably the government, seems to have failed to calibrate the increasingly visible rivalry on foreign and defense policy between Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and President Dmitry Medvedev. In this rivalry, Putin has consistently stood for the hawkish, more aggressive side. In 2008, Putin’s right-hand men, Igor Sechin, and Nikolai Patrushev, openly called for a military alliance with Cuba and Venezuela, though Medvedev on his subsequent tour of Latin America never voiced the subject publicly (Argumenty Nedeli, August 7, 2008, Kommersant, September 18, 2008). Again in 2009, the Russian air force repeated this gambit, searching for bases in Venezuela and Cuba, and again Medvedev remained silent (Interfax, March 14, 2009).

Since then, Putin upended Medvedev’s readiness to make a deal with the US on Russian entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in June 2009 (St. Petersburg Times, June 11, 2009). He also undermined Medvedev in Kyrgyzstan, since the Russian president had said in February 2009 that Kyrgyzstan’s decision to end US access to Manas was Bishkek’s own decision. But later that year, Putin, angry over Kyrgyzstan’s about-face and extension of the US lease, plus its disbursement of Russian loans for purposes other than what Moscow intended, rebuked the Kyrgyz government that the money had been granted solely on condition that it end US access, a charge that was then leaked to the press (, December 3, 2009).

Subsequently, and most prominently in regard to the missile defense issue, on December 28, 2009, in Vladivostok Putin said that, due to the alleged US missile defense threat to the strategic balance, Russia had to build more new offensive nuclear weapons, a demand also associated with the General Staff (, December 29, 2009). Yet, during the March 5, 2010 expanded session of the defense ministry collegium, Medvedev made it clear that Russia does not need to increase its offensive nuclear capability any further than was originally planned (, March 5).

Two weeks later, when US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited Moscow, Putin again reacted to Medvedev’s plans for an agreement with Washington. Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced in her presence that Russia would finish building the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran this summer, even though this was a public insult to the Secretary of State, and the US government (, March 19, 2010). Putin then told her to help Russia secure WTO quickly and open up US markets for Russian businessmen (, March 19).

These incidents demonstrate that Putin has aligned himself with those favoring a more confrontational policy towards the US. He is prepared to cross swords with Medvedev in public, and relies on support from the armed forces over his policy preferences. This last point is potentially extremely dangerous, as it raises the possiblity of the politicization of the military or its employment in the already visible power struggle. Moreover, it is also troubling that the US negotiating team seems to have been caught unawares about the impact of this rivalry on the treaty during the negotiations in Janaury and February. Meanwhile, only the president’s steadfastness on missile defense kept the Russians from achieving these last-minute concessions or ending the negotiations. Certainly, it appears that an inordinate amount of time has been expended on these talks, and it seems unlikely that Russia will soon agree to further nuclear reductions. Neither will Moscow agree to US aims regarding Iran. Indeed, it has apparently successfully argued for a watering down of the proposed UN resolution on sanctions against Iran (, March 24). These points suggest that any rapture over the new arms control treaty should be modified by a healthy dose of greater understanding that the power struggle in Moscow, until it is resolved, will make all progress towards genuine mutual trust and confidence take place along a very long and winding road.