Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 10

The United States and Russia announced unexpectedly on May 13 that Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin would indeed have an arms control agreement to sign when the two hold summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg later this month. The hastiness of the announcements, however, together with lingering questions about both the content and the real magnitude of the arms agreement, rendered the news oddly anticlimactic. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov captured some of this ambiguity when he suggested to reporters that the new pact would not be “overly ambitious.” Putin’s initial comments likewise gave little sense that anyone in Moscow sees the accord as a watershed event. “We are satisfied with our joint work,” was about the best the Russian leader could muster for reporters.

If the Russian responses to the May 13 announcement were less than euphoric, that may be because the new pact appears to satisfy few of the demands that have served as the basis of Russian negotiating efforts since the beginning of the year. Details of the new agreement have not yet been made public, but comments by officials and observers from both countries suggested that Moscow had struck out on its primary demand–namely, that warheads due for decommissioning under the new arms cut plan be destroyed rather than stored. Moreover, numerous reports made it clear that the U.S. desire for maximum “flexibility” with respect to the disposition of warheads had carried the day. They quoted an unnamed U.S. official as confirming that under “this treaty, both sides can make reductions in their own way, according to what serves their own best interests.” A second Russian demand, that the strategic offensive cuts be linked to restrictions in U.S. missile defense testing and deployment, appears to have been similarly frustrated.

The one area in which Russia was reported to have achieved its aims was in Washington’s consent to confer on the new arms cut accord the status of a full treaty, one requiring ratification by the legislatures of both countries. That was an apparent retreat from the Bush administration’s earlier proposals urging that the agreement be an informal one. But some questioned whether the formal treaty status that will be accorded the new agreement marks a real effort by Washington to accommodate Moscow’s desire to lock in the proposed strategic arms reductions. That is in part because the new treaty will permit either side to withdraw on only three months’ notice. Of more importance, the Bush administration’s willingness to withdraw from international treaties, together with the fact that this one seems to do little to constrain Washington’s behavior in any event, means that formal treaty status will probably give Moscow little comfort. What it does provide is some small political cover for Putin to sign the arms cut accord at the May 23-26 summit.