Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 205

With preparations for next week’s summit meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush entering the homestretch, the Russian leader appears this week to have sent some of the strongest signals to date that Moscow is prepared to deal on the issue of missile defense and that an historic agreement in this area may be within reach. According to agency reports published yesterday, Putin took a number of conciliatory stands, including on crucial arms control issues, in a Kremlin interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters that is to air tonight. Among other things, Putin is quoted as saying in the interview that the two presidents “could quite quickly reach mutual agreements” on missile defense, and that Moscow is prepared to be “quite flexible” in its discussions on the matter. He is also quoted as saying–in the same context–that Russia believes that “the ABM Treaty of 1972 is important, essential, effective and useful, but we have a negotiating platform from which we could reach agreements.” That is an endorsement of the 1972 treaty, but not so categorical a one as more typical Russian statements over the past several years that have called it the “cornerstone” of the entire international arms control system.

In a reflection of the surprisingly close personal relationship that has developed between the U.S. president and the former KGB official, Putin also spoke warmly of Bush as a man who “sees better and deeper and understands the problems more accurately,” and who also “lives up to the agreements he reaches.”

Putin’s remarks, however, were not entirely without reservations. On the missile defense issue he did say that an agreement could “only be found as a result of very intense negotiations,” which suggests that he thinks it unlikely that the summit will yield a formal or final agreement in this area. Of at least equal importance, Putin also defended Russia’s policy of selling arms to Iran and of cooperating with Tehran in the development of nuclear energy. This Iranian-Russian cooperation has been a serious sticking point in relations between Moscow and Washington since the mid-1990s, and Putin’s remarks in the ABC interview appear to be a warning that this is one area in which the Kremlin is not prepared to bend to U.S. wishes during the upcoming talks. Indeed, Putin rejected outright long-standing U.S. accusations that Russian organizations are “leaking” missile or nuclear technology to Iran, and reportedly told Walters that “We have not ever sold anything to Iran, out of the range of technology that would help Iran develop missiles, or weapons of mass destruction” (AP, Reuters, November 6).

In seeking both to enlist full Russian support in the U.S.-led antiterror war and to win Moscow’s assent to changes in (or abrogation of) the ABM Treaty, the Bush administration has recently been willing to mute criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya and of the Kremlin’s continuing, low-level assault on press freedoms in Russia. Whether it will also choose to soft-pedal U.S. (and Israeli) concerns on the subject of Russian military and nuclear cooperation with Iran remains to be seen.

Putin’s generally optimistic remarks on the issue of missile defense follow a period of several days in which top Russian officials appeared to send some mixed signals on whether Moscow and Washington are on the threshold of a major agreement. On November 2, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov appeared to suggest that the two countries were considerably farther from an agreement than a number of U.S. publications had suggested at the close of talks between Ivanov and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell only one day earlier. Ivanov was responding to reports that the two sides may now be closing in on a pact under which Washington would agree both to amend the ABM Treaty (rather than doing away with it entirely) in a fashion that would permit the United States to continue missile defense testing and to reduce strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles to levels closer to what Moscow desires. But the Russian foreign minister warned that “difficult consultations” lay ahead before the two sides can finalize such an agreement and that “things have not yet reached the point of concluding agreements–wide-ranging, large-scale agreements–in this sphere” (Reuters, November 2; New York Times, November 3).

Expectations that an agreement is in the offing appeared to rise once again, however, on the occasion of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s November 3 visit to Moscow, during which he held talks with his opposite number, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and met with Putin. Neither Rumsfeld nor Ivanov revealed in any detail what conclusions they had reached in their consultations, but Ivanov was quoted as saying that the two sides had discussed how to establish an “absolutely clear and transparent” system for verifying any new arms control regime, and that there were now “good prospects here to move forward quickly” toward an accord. Ivanov appeared also to signal Putin’s own subsequent break with the usual Russian descriptions of the importance of the ABM accord by describing it as “important, but not the only component, of strategic stability.” But for all that, Ivanov also questioned the wisdom of withdrawing from an agreement that had long proven its worth without having an alternative structure in place to succeed it. And he criticized recent U.S. statements characterizing the ABM accord as an outmoded relic of the Cold War by suggesting that, from a Russian perspective, NATO is also an outmoded relic of the same period (AP, November 3; New York Times, November 4; Interfax, November 5).

But both the Russian Defense and Foreign Ministries appeared to get on the same page–and to anticipate Putin’s ABC interview–when they suggested on Monday of this week that the two sides were indeed narrowing their differences. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted as saying that the two countries were definitely getting closer on the issue of the ABM Treaty, while the Foreign Ministry released a statement specifically indicating Moscow’s belief that real possibilities for the reaching of principled understandings on strategic issues have been growing since the Russian and U.S. presidents met at the APEC forum in Shanghai last month. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement came in the wake of talks in Moscow between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov and U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton (Reuters, Interfax, November 5).

Against this background, some arms control experts are reportedly suggesting that the two sides are unlikely to reach a formal agreement on the missile defense issue during the upcoming summit, but that informal accords in this area could be announced that would be finalized only after additional negotiation. Meanwhile, speculation continues as to exactly what Moscow will demand in return from Washington for the various concessions it has made–or is expected to make–with regard to both missile defense and the U.S. war against terrorism. In addition to the expected deeper cuts in U.S. strategic nuclear forces, Moscow is said to be angling for a series of economic measures that will lead to a restructuring or forgiving of its Soviet-era debt, as well as for greater support in gaining membership to the World Trade Organization. Indeed, the Bush administration has apparently already initiated an effort aimed at getting a quick congressional vote on revoking the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a move that would not only boost Russia’s chances for WTO membership but that would permit Washington to raise several former Soviet republics to normal trading status with the United States (New York Times, November 2-3; Washington Post, November 4).