Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 6

A contentious fortnight for Russian and American diplomats concluded on a more amicable note when U.S. President George W. Bush announced on March 13 that he believed the two countries were likely to finalize a binding nuclear arms reduction agreement by the time that he meets with President Vladimir Putin in May. Bush’s remarks came near the end of a three-day visit to Washington by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, whose itinerary included a brief meeting with Bush as well as talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking U.S. officials. Rumsfeld and Ivanov also contributed to the cheery mood on March 13, suggesting like the U.S. president that Ivanov’s visit had helped the two sides to narrow longstanding differences on several issues related to the arms reduction plan. In a move aimed at further enforcing the notion that Russian-U.S. arms negotiations–and broader relations between the two countries–remain on track, Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also used statements to the press on March 13 to downplay reports of mounting tensions.

Whether the assurances voiced in Washington and Moscow reflected reality remains an open question, however, because already strained relations between the two countries were further tested by a pair of developments that preceded Ivanov’s arrival in the U.S. capital. One was the prospect of a trade war between Russia and the United States that centered on steel and poultry products. Another was the appearance of reports in major U.S. media suggesting that a recent U.S. strategic nuclear policy review contained recommendations that would lower the threshold for use by the United States of nuclear weapons and that placed Russia in a group of seven countries named as potential targets for U.S. nuclear strikes. Moreover, the developments in both of these areas threatened to exacerbate existing tensions between Moscow and Washington related to several other security issues. They include a deadlock in negotiations over a proposed cooperation agreement between Russia and NATO, continuing Russian concerns over U.S. antiterror operations in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and Russian misgivings over U.S. threats to make Iraq the next target of Washington’s antiterror war.

The Russian-U.S. trade dispute erupted following the U.S. president’s announcement on March 5 that he was imposing tariffs of up to thirty percent on a range of steel imports, including those from Russia. The move provoked outrage in a host of foreign capitals, including in Moscow, where Russian authorities charged that the tariffs violated two existing Russian-U.S. trade agreements. More to the point, perhaps, Russian authorities announced their own intention to impose a ban on the import of U.S. poultry into Russia. And while the same authorities claimed that there was no connection between the steel tariffs and the poultry ban, Russian media were having no part of that denial. Some praised the poultry ban for (so to speak) killing two birds with one stone. It would both punish the United States for the steel tariffs, they said, while providing a boost for Russia’s domestic poultry producers.

The poultry ban elicited a sharp response from U.S. officials, who went so far as to suggest that it might ultimately complicate broader bilateral relations between Russia and the United States and could even lead Washington to rethink its support for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. And, indeed, the potential stakes in the trade dispute were not insignificant. Russian trade officials said that the U.S. steel tariffs could cost Russian steel producers some US$400-500 million. The Russian poultry ban, likewise, could cut deeply into some US$700 million worth of U.S. chicken sales to Russia. The U.S. poultry industry employs people in thirty-eight states, and half of all its exports go to Russia. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the consequences of a trade war led both sides to step back a bit. As the fortnight came to a close, U.S. officials were arguing that the steel tariffs would actually effect only a fraction of Russia’s exports to the United States, while Russian authorities were suggesting that there might be ways to avoid implementation of the poultry ban.

Reports of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review proved equally contentious. When results of the classified review were first announced back in January, the Bush administration had emphasized elements related to strategic arms reductions. Analyses published in March, however, which were based on information leaked to leading U.S. newspapers, painted a more complicated picture. Russian officials were especially outraged over suggestions that the review grouped Russia with such “axis of evil” states as Iraq, Iran and North Korea as potential targets of U.S. nuclear strikes. Russian officials claimed that such a policy would violate earlier assurances offered to Moscow, and also contradicted claims by the Bush administration that it no longer considered Russia to be an enemy. Other provisions in the review, moreover, appeared to confirm the validity of Russian complaints about U.S. plans to store rather than destroy warheads under the strategic arms reduction plan announced last year by Presidents Putin and Bush.

As the fortnight came to a close, Bush administration officials were furiously denying the accuracy of media reports of the nuclear posture review and offering new assurances to the Russians. Upbeat reports of Ivanov’s Washington talks, however, provided little hard news to suggest that the two sides had made any real progress in overcoming substantive differences on strategic arms reductions. And that fact suggested that the two sides might still face problems in finalizing a strategic reductions agreement by the time that the two presidents hold summit talks this May.