Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 120

With Russian-American relations so severely strained during the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, it came as a surprise to many that Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin could so quickly agree at their recent meeting in Cologne to move forward on some very contentious nuclear arms control issues. For the first time, the Russians agreed to sit down and talk with the Americans about possible changes to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. In return, the Americans agreed to discuss–but not formally negotiate–the START III strategic arms reduction treaty before the Russian State Duma ratifies START II. In making these concessions, both sides reversed long-standing positions.

After so much acrimony regarding NATO expansion, Serbia and Kosovo, any agreement between Russia and the United States is certainly welcome. However, it would be wrong to read too much into the recent Cologne understanding. Above all, Russians of all political stripes remain absolutely opposed to any substantive changes to the ABM Treaty. While Yeltsin might have agreed to have his negotiators listen to American proposals on this issue, he is reported to have told Clinton that he [and Russia] remain categorically against any revision to the treaty. State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev yesterday said that the deputies would vote on ratification of START II when they returned in September from their summer recess but opined that ratification was unlikely if the United States continued with its plans to develop a nationwide antimissile defense system. The Americans would like to modify the ABM treaty to accommodate at least a limited shield over the entire country. Seleznev warned that the ratification bill would include provisions allowing Russia to withdraw from START II should the United States violate its disarmament pledges–that is, tamper with the ABM treaty–or should NATO deploy nuclear weapons in the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland.

Little harm can come from further preliminary talks about START III. The basic outline of further nuclear reductions was agreed to between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin during their 1997 Helsinki summit, at which they decided that the two countries would cut their strategic nuclear arsenals down to 2,500-2,000 warheads by the end of 2007. Officials from both sides have subsequently suggested that even deeper cuts might be possible. In refining the terms of this follow-on, the Americans might be able to meet some of the State Duma’s concerns over START II and thus improve the chances for ratification. That treaty, however, has been a convenient hostage for each and every bump in the relations between the two countries. It would take a minor miracle for their relationship to be free of conflict long enough to allow the Russian State Duma to agree on ratification (Russian and international agencies, June 20-21).