Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 37

Mixed messages in news reports have left it unclear this week just how much was–or was not–accomplished during talks U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton and senior Russian officials held in Moscow on February 18-19. The two days of talks clearly appear to have highlighted anew continuing differences between the two countries on the subject of Russian military and nuclear cooperation with Iran (see the Monitor, February 20). But the picture appears more muddy with respect to talks on strategic arms cuts and a political document aimed at setting out the terms of a new Russian-U.S. strategic framework. There seems little doubt that no breakthrough was achieved on the first count, despite some hints from the Russian side beforehand that the two sides expected to narrow their differences significantly. Pressure has grown on negotiators to finalize agreements on both the strategic arms cuts and the strategic framework so that they will be ready for signing when Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush hold summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg this May.

Although he spoke of his belief that there are “no insuperable obstacles” to Russia and the United States completing a strategic arms reduction agreement by the May meeting, Bolton appeared in remarks to reporters on February 19 to acknowledge nonetheless that lingering disagreements on a host of issues could yet stymie those efforts. “We have a number of difficult issues, questions about how exactly to account for the offensive, strategic warheads, measures of transparency and verification and a series of issues that still have to be resolved,” he told reporters. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had likewise said earlier that the two sides still had “different approaches” to the nuclear disarmament issue, despite some “common understandings.” A commentary posted on the Kremlin-backed website said that the February 18-19 talks “had not arrived at the desired result–an agreement on the two most important documents” (that is, the strategic arms reduction agreement and the strategic partnership statement).

With respect to the arms cuts, Bolton’s remarks appeared to reflect the fact that the two sides have continued to clash on the same issues that have divided them since negotiations resumed earlier this year. Those issues involve the nature of the agreement that is to be signed, Russian concerns over the Bush administration’s plans to store rather than destroy many of the warheads slated for decommissioning under the arms reduction proposals, and Russian efforts to link the arms cuts to limitations in U.S. missile defense testing and deployment.

The two sides have made some progress on the first issue: In remarks to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 5 Powell signaled the Bush administration’s readiness to meet Russian demands that the arms cuts be formalized in a legally binding agreement (see the Monitor, February 8). Precisely what form that agreement will take appears still to be a subject of discussion, however. At the same time, remarks by Bolton in Moscow suggested that Washington has budged little, if at all, on Russian demands that decommissioned nuclear warheads be destroyed rather than stored. And he appeared to bluntly reject Russian calls for some oversight of U.S. missile defense deployments. According to Russian sources, Moscow is pushing to have this linkage between strategic arms reductions and limitations on defense systems included formally in an arms reduction agreement (, February 17, 19; Moscow Times, February 20; AFP, February 19-20; Reuters, February 19).

If the news out of Moscow on February 19 seemed generally downbeat about the latest round of negotiations, however, a report published yesterday by the Interfax news agency appeared to reflect a more positive view–from a Russian perspective, at least–of the week’s events. The Interfax article quoted unnamed Russian “diplomatic sources” as saying that there had in fact been some significant progress made in this week’s talks. The sources suggested that the two sides had agreed for the first time to base their strategic arms reduction agreement on provisions contained in the START I Treaty. The diplomats did not go into detail, but they spoke of “concrete oversight mechanisms, the procedure for recording reductions in the nuclear arsenals and a number of other effective measures.” They spoke also of agreement on additional measures aimed at boosting transparency and confidence, including information exchanges that would continue after the arms reduction agreement is signed. Of perhaps greater interest, the diplomats also spoke of a new willingness by Washington to meet one of Moscow’s key demands–that any arms reduction agreement require ratification by the legislatures of the two countries. The U.S. side has been reticent up to now to make any such commitment. Whether these statements reported by Interfax reflect the reality of this week’s negotiations is unclear, particularly insofar as some of them appear to conflict with what Bolton said during his February 19 press conference (Interfax, February 20).

Another Russian news source, meanwhile, suggested this week that Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran may also have emerged as a factor in the Russian-U.S. talks on strategic arms cuts. A commentary posted on the website speculated that the American side may be offering some sort of deal whereby Washington would agree to sign a strategic arms reduction agreement in exchange for a Russian commitment to cease nuclear cooperation with Iran, as well as with other countries which the United States considers to be a threat. To substantiate this claim the piece pointed to the fact that Bolton met during his stay in Moscow with two of the senior Russian officials involved in cooperation with Iran: Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev and the director of the Russian space agency, Yury Koptev (, February 19).

The Russian side, meanwhile, attempted this week to turn U.S. charges that Russian-Iranian cooperation constitutes a proliferation risk back upon Washington. Diplomatic sources were quoted by Interfax yesterday as saying that Moscow remains concerned over U.S. plans to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty because the U.S. move could undermine efforts to halt the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The same sources also restated Russia’s hopes of further internationalizing the nuclear disarmament process by seeking the involvement of other countries–and of the UN Security Council (Interfax, February 20). That effort is unlikely to be appreciated in Washington, which is intending to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in part precisely to free itself from international obligations in this area.