Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 195

Several days after a meeting between the Russian and U.S. presidents at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai, it remains unclear whether Moscow and Washington are on the verge of a major strategic arms control agreement–as a number of news sources suggested immediately following the September 21 talks–or whether the two sides still have important differences to resolve before Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush convene for a full round of summit talks next month in the United States. That the issue appeared to occupy so prominent a place in the talks between Putin and Bush this past weekend suggests, at the least, that in dealing with Russia the Bush administration has moved beyond its more recent, almost exclusive concentration on the antiterror campaign. Washington is now hoping to use the November summit to achieve a breakthrough on the issue–missile defense–that had been its top security policy priority in the months prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. If this is so, then the weeks leading up to the November meeting are likely to be a test of just how far relations between Moscow and Washington have really come since that time. That is, the next few weeks should go some way toward determining whether Moscow’s decision to join the antiterror coalition represents a real watershed event in post-Cold War Russian-U.S. relations, one that will usher in a new era of cooperation between Russia and the West, or whether Moscow’s support for the antiterror effort remains a largely tactical policy, one that has helped to improve bilateral ties between the two nations but has not yet ensured agreement on a host of difficult issues.

Those who have suggested that Russia and the United States may be on the threshold of a deal that would permit Washington to proceed with missile defense testing and deployment have pointed to the apparently chummy atmosphere that pervaded the Putin-Bush meeting in Shanghai and, especially, to suggestions by the two presidents afterward that they had made progress in narrowing their differences on the missile defense issue. Indeed, Putin was quoted as telling reporters in this context that “I believe we do have an understanding that we can reach agreement.” The case that a deal may be imminent was further strengthened by a report claiming that Putin had made clear to his closest advisors on the eve of the Shanghai meeting that he was prepared to bend to an American request to modify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, so long as Washington does not withdraw altogether from the pact (New York Times, October 22).

In addition, reports carried by both Russian and Western news sources suggested that one of the primary obstacles to a missile defense deal–Moscow’s insistence that it be accompanied by steep cuts in Russian and U.S. offensive strategic weapons–may soon be surmounted. These sources said that, while Washington is not prepared to go as low as the 1,500 nuclear warheads Russia has proposed, the Pentagon is prepared to come down far enough to make Moscow happy. At present the United States has about 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads to Russia’s 6,000. The United States has already indicated its willingness to cut its stockpile to under the 3,500-warhead ceiling mandated by the 1993 START II Treaty, but U.S. military leaders had reportedly been unwilling to take that number to below 2,00-2,500 warheads. The Pentagon’s inability to come up with a hard number in this area to present to the Russians had been a primary reason why Russian-U.S. negotiations on missile defense had made little progress earlier this year. The Pentagon also failed to produce an official proposal for nuclear warhead reductions in time for the Shanghai summit, but news sources suggested that it had come up with an unofficial number and that this figure might be finalized by the time of the November Russian-U.S. summit.

In what appeared to be a transparent attempt to increase pressure on the Kremlin, meanwhile, Bush administration officials in Shanghai leaked to the press information indicating the administration’s willingness to withdraw from the ABM Treaty unilaterally–perhaps as early as January–if no agreement is reached by that time with Moscow. There were conflicting reports as to whether Bush had made this point to Putin during their talks in Shanghai. But one unnamed senior administration official was quoted as saying that, while Bush had not given a specific withdrawal date to Putin, “he made it clear that it would happen,” possibly as soon as January. “There is a very, very short time period in which we either make progress or we withdraw,” he was quoted as saying (Washington Post, October 23). Bush himself, meanwhile, used the press conference following his talks with Putin to push the administration’s argument that the September 11 attacks “make it clearer than ever that a Cold War ABM treaty that prevents us from defending our people is outdated and, I believe dangerous.” Putin was less than categorical in his response, but did reiterate earlier Russian claims that the treaty continues to bring “an element of stability” to the world. Later, moreover, Putin joined critics of the notion that the September 11 attacks make the building of a ballistic missile defense system more urgent. “It would be difficult for me to agree that some terrorists will be able to capture intercontinental missiles … to use them,” he said. A number of commentators in Russia have argued that the low-tech nature of the September 11 atrocities proved, if anything, that the national missile defense system being proposed for the United States would be useless in protecting the country from terrorist attacks.

The doubts expressed by Putin following his talks with Bush were, moreover, not the only indication that the two countries may still have some work to do before they finalize a missile defense agreement. Another was the fact that Bush and his advisors appeared to be resuscitating language suggesting an imminent U.S. withdrawal from the ABM accord, while the statements attributed to Putin reflected a willingness only to “stretch” the treaty so as to permit some American testing. Whether that reflects continuing significant divergences in Russian and U.S. thinking on the subject is unclear, but the same unnamed senior Bush administration official who had suggested withdrawal from the ABM Treaty could come early was also quoted as saying that some two months of Russian-U.S. arms control talks have in fact done little to resolve the serious differences that remain between the two sides on this subject. And while some Russian news sources did join their Western counterparts in suggesting that Putin was preparing to make significant concessions to Washington, others saw the Bush-Putin talks in Shanghai as a matter-of-fact indication that the Kremlin has changed its position little with regard to missile defense, the ABM accord, and the need for strategic missile cuts.

But whatever the Kremlin’s actual current stance on the missile defense issue, one thing is certain: The two sides will have to move with exceptional speed if any sort of significant breakthrough is to occur at the November summit meeting. Formal consultations in this area are set to resume on November 1 when delegations led by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov and U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton convene in Washington. The results of those talks should give some indication of whether the two countries are in fact closing in on an agreement. In Moscow, meanwhile, “informed sources” commenting on the upcoming talks said that the Russian side continues to see the ABM Treaty as a “cornerstone” of global strategic stability (New York Times, Washington Post, Interfax, The Guardian, October 22; AP, Reuters, Strana.ru, October 21; Novye Izvestia, October 23).