Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 9

?Meanwhile, preparations for the May 23-26 summit meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush continued over the past fortnight to drive diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States. And if the fortnight previous had been highlighted by an apparent breakthrough in talks aimed at boosting cooperation between Russia and NATO (see the Fortnight in Review, April 19), then the past two weeks were dominated by reports of progress in talks on another of the key issues that the two sides had hoped to resolve prior to the summit: a Russian-U.S. agreement to formalize reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals. As this issue went to press Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was in Washington for talks the two sides hoped would help to crown negotiations that have been growing in intensity since the latest round was launched at the beginning of this year.

At a summit meeting held in Washington and Crawford, Texas last November, the Russian and U.S. presidents made commitments to reduce their countries’ respective nuclear arsenals from approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200. Since that time the two countries have managed to narrow or eliminate their differences on a host of related issues, most significantly in a U.S. agreement to meet Russian demands that the arms cut accord take the form of a legally binding document. Other issues have proved more problematic, however. This has been most especially true of Russian objections to Bush administration plans to store rather than destroy thousands of warheads subject to the reductions agreement. These plans by the U.S. side to build and maintain a so-called reserve force of readily redeployable nuclear warheads has led to charges by Moscow–and by some in the U.S. arms control community–that what the Bush administration really seeks are “virtual” arms reductions, that is, reductions in name only. Some of those U.S. critics have also expressed concerns that Bush administration plans could ultimately lead to a decision by Moscow to store thousands of its own retired nuclear warheads, a development that they say would worsen the already serious proliferation risks posed by Russia’s deteriorating nuclear control structure.

But if news reports and public statements by Russian and U.S. officials have been clear that the issue of counting warheads remains a major obstacle to a new arms reduction agreement, they have been less so about other issues that may be impeding finalization of an accord. Most important in this regard have been claims–outlined in some news reports but ignored in others–that the two countries are also struggling over a Russian effort to formally link the planned offensive arms reductions to U.S. missile defense testing and deployment plans. This issue is an outgrowth of Russia’s continued unhappiness over the Bush administration’s announcement last year that it intends to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. According to some recent reports, the Russian side is insisting that the question of linkage between offensive and defensive systems be addressed directly within the arms reduction agreement now under negotiation. The U.S. side, by contrast, would reportedly prefer to include it in a broad political declaration of Russian-U.S. strategic cooperation that is also being prepared for the May 23-26 summit. It is unclear whether this dispute is a potential deal-breaker, although a Bush administration official has been quoted as saying that it is not. He also reiterated the administration’s longstanding refusal to consider any limitations that Moscow might want to impose on U.S. missile defense deployment.

If recent claims by the Russian side are to believed, then it is a package of new proposals offered up by Moscow during talks in the Russian capital on April 23 that have helped to bring the two sides closer to a final arms cut agreement. Those proposals apparently figured in the mix during a subsequent visit to Moscow by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on April 29. They may also be a factor in the claim by a top Rumsfeld aide on May 1 that the last roadblocks to a Russian-U.S. agreement are relatively minor and could be overcome by the start of the Russian-U.S. summit. Because the content of the new Russian proposals have not been public, it is impossible to evaluate them. But some recent news reports suggested they might have reflected a softening in Moscow’s opposition to the U.S. warhead storage plan. If that is the case, the Russian proposals are likely to intensify the debate in Russia over whether the Kremlin would be justified in signing even a “bad” nuclear arms cut agreement with Washington–that is, one in which its many concerns are not fully addressed–or whether Russia would be better advised to proceed without any agreement at all. That debate, not surprisingly, is linked to a broader questioning of President Vladimir Putin’s post-September 11 embrace of the U.S. antiterror war and the West more generally, and to charges that Russia has not received enough benefits in return for it.