Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 4

Despite continuing recriminations over both Russia’s war in Chechnya and a host of other divisive international and bilateral issues, Moscow and Washington managed at least one act of fruitful cooperation over the New Year holiday: the joint manning of a temporary “early warning” center designed to watch for any false warnings of missile attacks caused by the year-2000 computer bug. On December 31-January 1 nineteen Russian officers sat side-by-side with U.S. military personnel at the ad hoc Center for Y2K Strategic Stability at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, monitoring the skies to guard against any sort of computer generated nuclear catastrophe.

In the event, the night proved to be as boring as those involved had hoped it would be. As the world passed time-zone by time-zone into the new century, no unexpected ballistic missile activity was detected anywhere around the world. Indeed, the most interesting moments generated during the long vigil were apparently related to Russia’s domestic turmoil. Like the rest of the world, the Russian and U.S. officers were reported to have been “caught off guard” by the resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The center also apparently observed–via U.S. spy satellites–the firing by Russian troops of three short-range Scud missiles into Chechnya. An unnamed U.S. defense official was quoted as saying that observation of the firing of Scuds into Chechnya had by now become routine (Reuters, AP, December 31, 1999; New York Times, Reuters, January 1).

U.S. officials were quick to claim afterwards that the Colorado Springs project had helped to improve long-term ties between Russia and U.S. military establishments and suggested both that the two countries would continue to cooperate in managing a shared early-warning system and that Americans could eventually be sitting next to Russians at a second joint warning center which has been proposed to be built in Moscow (M2 Communications, January 4).

But last week’s joint Russian-U.S. effort in Colorado appeared, in fact, to reflect ongoing tensions between Russia and the United States as much as it did any freshening of military or other bilateral cooperation. The early warning project had been agreed upon originally by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton at a September 1998 summit in Moscow which was most notable for its overall failure to improve worsening ties between their two countries. The project later became a political football. The Russians renounced their intention to participate following the start of NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia in March of last year, a move which was part of a broader Russian decision to freeze military contacts with NATO and those of its member states active in the alliance’s Balkans campaign.

It was only after considerable U.S. prodding that Russia agreed late last summer to resume talks on the project. The U.S. efforts were driven not only by a desire to repair relations with the Russian Defense Ministry, but also by concerns that the Russians had not moved actively enough to safeguard their missile attack warning system against possible Y2K glitches. On September 13 U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev–a former strategic rocket forces commander–signed an agreement which put the joint early warning project back on track. Among other things, the two defense heads also said that they were looking forward to establishing the permanent joint early warning center in Moscow at a later date (see the Monitor, September 8, 14, 1999).

This last statement, however, reflected the fact that the Russian side had retreated from an earlier proposal which would have placed U.S. officers in Moscow as well as Russian officers in Colorado Springs. Indeed, subsequent Russian reports–indicating that the Defense Ministry had no intention of inviting U.S. military representatives to the control centers of the Russian Strategic Missile Troops on New Year’s Eve–appeared designed to underscore the Russian military’s continued disinclination to resume full cooperation with the West. The Colorado Springs project notwithstanding, there has been little to indicate that Moscow is now reconsidering that position.