Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 8

Is There a Future for the U.S.-Russia “Special Relationship”?

By Sergei Oznobishchev

Not very long ago, in early 1992, while addressing the world community from the UN Security Council’s podium, Russian president Boris Yeltsin appraised Russia’s relations with the West as cooperative, friendly and even aligned. At the same time, Mr. Yeltsin promised that communism had been done away with in Russia once and for all. But, unsupported by actions, this declared partnership very soon began to develop "cracks." The specter of communism has become increasingly tangible in Russia’s political life. Therefore, the time has come to act to rescue Russia’s partnership with the West and to save Russia from a return to communist domination.

During the last decade (since Mr. Gorbachev began his reforms by declaring "new thinking" in the foreign policy) the political barometer has swung from the Cold War, to friendship and partnership, and then it moved back, stopping somewhere in between. The new Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, admitted recently that Russia is no longer pursuing a strategic union with her former Cold War adversaries (see Izvestiya, March 6, 1996). U.S. secretary of defense William Perry recently expressed nearly the same opinion while discussing a "pragmatic partnership" with Russia. Incidentally, the term "pragmatic partnership" is used in various draft versions of Russia’s national security concept currently being prepared in Moscow. Given that the authors who use this terminology in Russia are by no means of liberal orientation, it can be concluded that these approaches do not bode well for Russian relations with the West.

What is the reason for this crisis? The problem is that these speeches about partnership, by now a tradition at summits, have not affected the essence of relations between Russia and the U.S., including their material and military aspects. The two states continue to consider mutual nuclear deterrence to be essential for security. This dictates the need for the two states to maintain nuclear parity. The result is that the idea of a nuclear arms-free world remains a noble aspiration while military analysts keep on calculating how many and which nuclear arms the country must have at her disposal to have the advantage in a nuclear war.

Ten years have passed since the beginning of perestroika, during which time the world ostensibly was given the opportunity to establish a new system of security relations. But we have failed to do the most important thing — to create a partnership mechanism which could help us reconcile our attitudes toward each other and toward the world.

It is a fact that the military-technical approach to creating the so-called "balance of fear" as the necessary component of security, persists and continues to feed pathological suspicions regarding the other’s activities and intentions.

High-profile meetings do provide a certain potential for correcting relations between the states, but only provided that decisions made at such meetings are practically implemented. The Russian-American summit in Moscow in April is expected to concentrate on the strategic arms reduction issue, specifically the START-2 treaty. Certain optimistic politicians and Western experts have expressed hope that the treaty will be ratified at the summit.

However, it would perhaps be more reasonable to forecast that the treaty will not be ratified in Russia before the presidential election. After the election, the situation may develop according to the following two scenarios. If Boris Yeltsin (or somebody else from the "party of power") wins the election, there is a small (or very small) chance that the treaty will be ratified. If the Communists win the election there is no chance at all. In fact, the communists have already considered all the treaties signed by Russia and concluded that "by 95 percent these treaties do not correspond to Russia’s national security interests."

As far as the START-2 treaty is concerned, the first discussion of the treaty was held in March 1993 by the former Russian Supreme Soviet. Disregarding the opposition chorus shouting that the treaty is a "plot" by the West and the U.S. to "eliminate Russia’s strategic potential," it must be noted that there are a number of fairly reasonable objections formulated by Russian specialists concerning the treaty.

There are three areas of concern. The first is the the so-called "put back possibility" problem (i.e., the treaty leaves the U.S. the opportunity to re-install removed nuclear warheads). Second, Russia suggests that the treaty’s period of realization be extended by 5-7 years. This which would make it possible for Russia to avoid scrapping missiles which have not reached the end of their effective service term and would allow Russia time to produce new singlewarhead missiles to replace the multiwarhead missiles which must be scrapped according to the treaty. Lastly, Russia objects to the treaty provisions which call for it to eliminate some of the silos which currently accommodate those missiles that are to be scrapped. It would be much more convenient if Russia would be allowed to modernize these silos to house other missiles instead.

One can only regret that during the lengthy period of the Russian-American dialogue on strategic arms reduction, the U.S. has not found it possible to accommodate at least some of Russia’s concerns and suggestions.

At the same time, it has to be noted that START-2 or no START-2, Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal needs a sweeping overhaul simply because the missiles are approaching their "expiration date." Russia is virtually unable (for financial reasons) to accomplish such a replacement within the limits provided for in the START-1 treaty (6,000 warheads), while the limit set by START-2 (3,500 warheads) makes this task possible, though difficult. The U.S., without doubt, can easily maintain even 6,000 warheads.

Additionally, Russia’s non-ratification of START-2 would give strength to those in the U.S. who actively (and not without success) advocate the creation of a "national" ABM system. By not ratifying it, Russia would be driving herself into a corner. In this respect, Russia’s interest in ratifying the treaty is clear.

The national ABM idea is gaining momentum in the U.S. and this fact, in addition to arousing malicious satisfaction in the Russian opposition ("we have always warned you that the U.S. cannot be trusted"), causes concern even among non-politicized specialists of the Russian military-industrial complex.

If we take the prospect of the U.S. deploying her ABM system seriously, Russia, even now, must develop counter-measures and introduce such measures into plans for the modernization of our nuclear arsenal. Those missiles best suited to counter an ABM defense are precisely the heavy ground-based missiles with divisible warheads which Russia must scrap according to START-2.

Secondly, during this economic crisis, Russia might well be unable to develop the ground component of her "nuclear triad" to the full extent provided for in the START-2 treaty. This means that Russia’s possibility of nuclear retaliation, especially if the U.S. has a "complex" ABM system, might be negligible. In this sense it is important for Russia to achieve (at the Geneva talks) a clear distinction between strategic and tactical ABM systems. If those ABM systems classified as "tactical" can be modernized in a way that allows them effectively to combat strategic missiles, the result would be detrimental for Russia’s strategic potential.

The term "complex ABM system" means a system that could, in the opinion of our experts be quite legally created in the U.S. out of the components of "tactical" and "strategic" ABM systems. As a first tier, they may use the ABM TVD system which was "legalized" at the Geneva talks and possesses a certain, though not very high, "residual" efficiency in combating strategic targets.

The "second ABM tier" might comprise the two intra-atmosphere intercepting systems which were designed in the U.S. in the 1980’s. These are the HEDI system, for intercepting targets at heights of between 30 and 45 kilometers; and the LEDI system, for intercepting targets at heights of up to 15 kilometers. A substantial supplement to these two systems may be the THAAD ABM system which is currently being tested and which is designed to intercept missiles traveling at the speed of 4.5 kilometers per second at heights of more than 150 kilometers, i.e. beyond the atmosphere.

Finally, in accordance with the 1974 Protocol to supplement the ABM Treaty the U.S. enjoys the right to deploy (from their Grand-Forks missile base) up to 100 missile-interceptors designed to combat intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-based missiles in the downward segments of their trajectories.

An analysis indicates that these 100 missiles-interceptors, together with some 50 aircraftbased interceptors (which have passed tests in hitting targets traveling at 5.5 kilometers per second and which are used in combination with missile early warning systems) may well form the "third tier" of the U.S. strategic ground-based ABM system.

Due to financial problems, Russia (according to estimates), will be able to deploy only some 500 single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (instead of the 800-900 that was originally planned) which, given the existence of the above-described U.S. ABM system, would make Russia’s retaliation potential negligible and the efficiency of nuclear deterrence questionable. This is "the worst possible scenario," but any move indicating progress in this direction arouses strong concern among Russian analysts and diminishes their opportunities to campaign in favor of ratification of the START2 treaty.

The main factor that negatively affects almost all decision-making in the area of Russia’s military and security policies, including the question of ratifying START-2 treaty, has been the idea of NATO enlargement. Back in the summer of 1995, Vladimir Lukin (chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Relations), who is known to be a progressive and influential politician, was forced to conclude that NATO enlargement plans make it pointless to submit START-2 treaty for ratification.

Given the present less professional and more leftist State Duma, Lukin’s remark appears even more appropriate. It has become a common practice in the current Duma to use the thesis of NATO enlargement as a bugaboo to support anti-West sentiments. During the recent "tough" discussion of START-2 in the State Duma committees Speaker Gennady Seleznev, although generally favoring ratification of the treaty, remarked that one necessary condition is for the West to abandon plans for NATO eastward expansion.

Both the problem of NATO’s expansion and the problem of ratifying START-2 treaty are rooted in one deep and substantial problem in Russia’s relations with the West. This is the absence of an efficient mechanism for partnership able to actualize the good intentions and suggestions often enunciated at the top. We have proven unable to achieve even the smallest goal: To learn to understand and respect each other’s concerns in the field of military policy and security. It is for this very reason that problems have emerged in ratifying treaties, including START-2, and it is for this reason that the idea to move NATO to Russia’s borders has emerged. It is for this reason that when making their calculations, experts on both sides continue to use the rationale of the Cold War era which calls for the sides to rely on parity and mutual nuclear deterrence.

The result is that the military-technical basis has been "mechanically" reduced without having been subjected to a conceptual alteration. Therefore, the great power mentality (in which the possession of nuclear arms symbolizes status in the world arena) has begun to reproduce itself.

Translated by A. Kondorsky

Sergei Oznobishchev is the director of the International Security Problems Center of the Institute of the USA and Canada