Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 33

Sniping between Russia and the United States over U.S. missile defense plans escalated this week when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Moscow of itself being a major proliferator of missile technologies. In remarks he made during a February 14 appearance on PBS’s “News Hour With Jim Lehrer,” Rumsfeld charged that the Russians “are selling and assisting countries like Iran, North Korea and India and other countries with these [missile] technologies, which are threatening other people, including the United States, Western Europe and countries in the Middle East.” Given this background, Rumsfeld questioned why Moscow would then be “complaining when the United States wants to defend itself against the fruit of those proliferation activities.” Rumsfeld’s remarks, which marked the sharpest criticism the U.S. defense chief has leveled against Russia since assuming his post, appeared aimed at putting Moscow on the defensive and blunting its own claim that it is U.S. missile defense plans which threaten to undermine international peace. Rumsfeld’s criticism of Russia echoed charges leveled by CIA Director George Tenet last week before the U.S. Senate. Tenet also included Russia among those countries representing a security threat to the United States.

Moscow had reacted angrily to Tenet’s remarks and, not surprisingly, bristled anew this week at Rumsfeld’s accusations. Senior Russian military leaders led the charge, including First Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Manilov, who told Russian television viewers that “Russia has not violated, does not violate and will not violate its obligations, including in the area of nonproliferation.” The notoriously hawkish head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s foreign liaison office spoke in similar terms about what he said is Russia’s observance of international norms regulating the spread of missile technologies. More broadly, he charged that “even America’s allies don’t believe in the U.S. fairy tales about [the] missile threats Rumsfeld talks about.” For what it is worth, Ivashov also said that there would be no early meeting between the Russian and American defense chiefs (Reuters, AP, February 15; New York Times, February 8; Segodnya, Vremya MN, February 9).

The exchange between Rumsfeld and the Russian high command caps a roughly two-week period in which controversial U.S. missile defense plans (together with European proposals for an independent defense force) have dominated Washington’s direct interactions with its NATO allies, and its considerably less direct dealings with Russia.

That dialogue began in earnest during a February 3-4 international security conference in Munich, at which Rumsfeld took a first swipe at presenting the Bush administration’s case for missile defense to Washington’s Western allies. Against a background of strong European skepticism on this topic, it was unclear how many minds or hearts the U.S. defense secretary had managed to sway. What was perhaps equally notable about the Munich meeting, however, was the apparent failure of its Russian representative, Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov, to rally the Europeans behind Moscow’s opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. Indeed, Ivanov’s harsh Cold War-style rhetoric at the gathering may have served to undermine Moscow’s portrayal of itself as a serious player in the missile defense debate. This perception of Russian weakness, or impotence, was probably augmented by Rumsfeld’s very pointed move to avoid any direct talks with the Russian delegation (International and Russian agencies, February 3-4; UPI, AFP, February 4; Los Angeles Times, February 5).

Russian efforts to exploit differences between the United States and its NATO allies on missile defense seemed to meet with another setback during German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s February 12-13 visit to Moscow. In his talks with a host of top Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, Fischer appeared determined to reverse the perception, generated during a visit to Moscow by German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping in late January (see the Monitor, February 1), that Berlin was prepared to make common cause with Moscow in opposing deployment of the American missile defense system. Instead, Fischer elicited pledges from Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and others that Moscow would agree to negotiate in good faith with the Bush administration so as to move the two sides toward an amicable resolution of their differences over missile defense and the importance of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Fischer’s rhetoric in Moscow seemed expressly designed to impress on the Kremlin that the United States remains Germany’s major security partner, and that Russian attempts to fashion a “special relationship” with Berlin, so as to weaken the Western alliance, would meet with failure.

Diplomatic jousting between and among the United States, the European Union and Russia on the issue of missile defense has nevertheless just begun. During his Moscow visit, for example, Fischer said that Berlin would play no intermediary role between Russia and the United States on the missile defense question. The German minister nevertheless made a point of meeting with a wide range of political leaders during his visit to Moscow, and will undoubtedly fill U.S. officials in on the details during Fischer’s upcoming visit to the United States. He is also likely to restate Germany’s continuing doubts about U.S. defense plans, and push Washington to open negotiations with Russia on the matter. Berlin and Moscow, meanwhile, will get a chance to tangle anew over these issues during a summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder scheduled for April (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, February 12-13; Izvestia, February 14)

If Canada’s prime minister is to be believed, moreover, the Bush administration is already prepared to open a dialogue with both Russia and China on the missile defense issue. That, at least, is the message Prime Minister Jean Chretien reportedly relayed to Chinese President Jiang Zemin during a visit to Beijing this week (Reuters, February 14). Chretien was the first world leader to meet with Bush following the latter’s inauguration, and the two presumably discussed issues related to missile defense. Indeed, China’s reactions to U.S. missile defense plans may prove ultimately to be one of the most important determinants to how smoothly the international community resolves this issue. This was suggested by Fischer, who said during his Moscow trip that he is more concerned about Beijing’s response to U.S. missile defense plans than he is about Moscow’s.

But China could also prove to be important because of the increasing weight Moscow has attached to its much-improved relations with Beijing. Given that, and China’s own apparent intransigence on the missile defense issue, the question is whether Moscow would risk a break with Beijing on so important a question even if the Kremlin managed to work out an accommodation on missile defense and the ABM Treaty with Washington.