Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 5

Relations between Russia and the United States remained wobbly over the past fortnight as, amid new recriminations regarding Washington’s plans to bring the U.S. antiterror war to Georgia (see below), the two sides also continued to joust over strategic arms cuts, Russian cooperation with Iran, and the parameters of a new NATO-Russia cooperation agreement. The ongoing disputes on these and other issues were in part reflective of rapid changes in the international security environment since September 11. With U.S. military operations in Afghanistan now winding down, relations between Russia and the United States face fresh tensions over Washington’s plans to target Iraq, Iran and North Korea–all states with which Russia has friendly relations. Diplomats from the two countries are also operating under pressure from a series of looming deadlines tied to events that will likely shape the international security environment for years to come. They include the next Russian-U.S. summit in May, a key meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Iceland that same month, the renewal of UN sanctions on Iraq in June, an expected U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty this summer, and a NATO summit meeting in November at which the alliance plans to launch a new round of expansion.

Hopes that Russia and the United States might finalize a strategic arms reduction agreement by the time of the May summit meeting appeared to dim a bit over the past fortnight, as yet another round of negotiations yielded little progress. Few details of the talks were made public, but U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton made clear at the close of talks in Moscow on February 19 that differences between the two sides remained on several key issues. One of those differences involves the nature of the arms cut agreement that is to be signed–Moscow wants a formal treaty with numerous safeguards and verification measures while Washington is still seeking a less formal and involved arrangement. At the same time, the two sides are reportedly continuing to clash over Russian objections to Bush administration plans to store rather than destroy warheads slated for decommissioning and over Russian efforts to link the strategic arms cuts to restrictions on U.S. missile defense deployments. Bolton suggested after the last round of cuts that the United States is also intensifying its pressure on Moscow to end defense and nuclear cooperation with Iran, and that this issue may now also be a factor in the negotiations on a strategic arms cut agreement.

The growing importance of Iran to relations between Russia and the United States was highlighted on February 19, when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi unexpectedly and at literally the last minute postponed a scheduled visit to Moscow. Neither Russian nor Iranian news or official sources specified exactly what had caused the postponement, but many observers speculated that the Russian-U.S. talks–or even the simple presence of Bolton in Moscow at the time Kharrazi was to arrive in the Russian capital–had been an important factor. If a Russian willingness to defer in any way to Washington had caused the postponement, however, that would mark a major shift in policy for the Kremlin. To date Russian officialdom has bluntly rejected U.S. demands that Moscow terminate its nuclear cooperation with Tehran while simultaneously dismissing U.S. (and Israeli) charges that Russian defense firms are leaking missile technologies to Iran.