Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 2

The sense that Russia and the United States were slipping back into a more adversarial relationship continued to strengthen over the past two weeks as the two sides clashed over several issues related to strategic arms control and the Bush administration resumed some of its earlier criticism of the Kremlin’s human rights policies. The emerging differences did not fully negate the enormous strides forward that had been made in bilateral ties over the second half of 2001, but they did suggest anew that the winding down of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan is likewise bringing to a close the warm partnership that had developed between Moscow and Washington during this initial phase of the U.S. war against international terrorism. And that concurrence of events, not surprisingly, has led to increasing speculation in Moscow that the United States, in fact, had never been committed to building a full partnership with Moscow, and that the Russian-U.S. rapprochement cultivated by the Bush administration during the war in Afghanistan is now giving way to a renewed U.S. drive to assert its strategic superiority.

Continuing differences between Russia and the United States on fundamental issues of strategic arms control were reflected in a new round of apparently fruitless negotiations that took place in Washington on January 15-16. Few details were released after the talks, but officials from both sides indicated that the two countries remain deadlocked over two issues in particular. They are the Bush administration’s decision to store, rather than destroy, an indeterminate number of nuclear warheads scheduled for decommissioning under an earlier agreement between the Russian and American presidents, and the U.S. side’s continuing disinclination to codify those same reductions in the form of a major new arms control treaty.

Indeed, the January 15-16 talks assumed added significance precisely because they were the first to follow a series of developments that have significantly altered the political landscape in which the negotiations are taking place. As suggested above, those developments include the winding down of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and the intensification of planning by the Bush administration to continue the antiterror war in other parts of the globe. In addition, the January 15-16 talks also follow a series of recent Washington announcements that reflect a concurrent stiffening in its posture on strategic arms issues. They include the Bush administration’s December 13 announcement that it plans to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, intimations from administration officials in early January that the United States could be considering a resumption of nuclear weapons testing, and a Pentagon announcement on January 8 indicating a U.S. intention to store–rather than destroy–large numbers of nuclear warheads scheduled for decommissioning under the administration’s strategic arms reduction plan.

Moscow’s reactions to these developments have been negative, though the Kremlin’s determination to maintain friendly relations with Washington has led it to ensure that the public responses of Russian officials have remained mostly measured and constructive. That is in part because Moscow is playing a weak hand: it is in no position to mount a real challenge to Washington, and the anticipated rapid shrinkage of its own strategic arsenal through obsolescence leaves it with little leverage to counter the Bush administration’s moves. Russian negotiators have nevertheless asserted (albeit without much authority) that Moscow will continue to insist both that the two sides sign a legally binding document setting out the proposed strategic arms reductions, and that Washington actually destroy the warheads which are to comprise those cuts. Meanwhile, the Kremlin appears to have authorized public statements by Defense Ministry hawks which draw a direct link between the Bush administration’s policies on nuclear weapons testing and storage to the difficulties faced by the Pentagon in developing a national ballistic missile defense system. According to these Russian generals, the United States has now reached the conclusion that a workable missile defense system is possible only if interceptor missiles are equipped with nuclear warheads, thus the possible need for testing and storage.

The stiffening in the Bush administration’s posture on strategic issues, moreover, has been accompanied by a rediscovery of shortcomings in the Kremlin’s human rights policies. U.S. leaders had originally put those issues on the backburner when Washington began serious negotiations with Moscow last year on missile defense, and buried them almost entirely as the United States sought Moscow’s help in waging its antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, however, Bush administration officials have begun to criticize Moscow anew for abuses in its conduct of the war in Chechnya. Washington has also stirred up a small tempest in Moscow with recent condemnations of moves by Russian authorities against both independent news media and a group of nuclear whistleblowers whose harsh treatment has been highlighted by the international human rights community. Not surprisingly, many Russian commentators have taken a jaundiced view of the U.S. criticism, suggesting that it reflects U.S. strategic ambitions rather than any real concern for human rights. The fresh tensions emerging between Russia and the United States on these and other issues, including the future of America’s military presence in Central Asia, do not indicate a return to the posture of confrontation that dominated the early months of the Bush presidency. But they do suggest that the United States is distancing itself from the warmth that characterized relations between the two countries in the latter part of 2001.