Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 161

There was a time when each Russo-American summit was marked by the announcement of a significant new step in nuclear disarmament. Had the actors in this week’s Moscow summit been able to follow the script, the meeting would have seen Russia ratify START II and finalize the terms of the follow-on START III. Instead, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton had to be content with two very modest accords: for the United States and Russia both to share information when either detects a ballistic missile launch anywhere in the world, and to reduce each country’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium by fifty metric tons.

Although the Americans had once held the plans for this summit hostage to Russian ratification of START II, it seems that strategic arms reductions were not even addressed in Moscow. On the eve of the meeting, some overly optimistic Russian commentators hinted that the State Duma was “closer… than ever” to ratifying the treaty despite the fact that the legislators and Yeltsin were completely at loggerheads on virtually every other issue. Yesterday, Marshal Igor Sergeev–once again relegated to “acting” minister of defense–held to this view: Many important deputies, he claimed, had changed their minds and now favored the treaty.

The announced agreement to share ballistic missile launch information could be operational within a year or two. The United States reportedly accepted a Russian proposal that the initiative include a joint center located on Russian territory. There is no question but that the Russian strategic early warning system has been significantly degraded in recent years–most recently when Latvia insisted that the Russians stick to the agreement to dismantle the radar at Skrunda. Providing the Russians with U.S. data would make it less likely that the Russians might misinterpret a missile event, as they did in January 1995, when Norway fired a sounding rocket which the Russians initially identified as a submarine missile launch. This cooperation, however, will do nothing to increase Russian confidence that they could detect an American first strike.

The plutonium initiative is one of those “agreements in principle” that will take years of negotiations–and an enormous amount of money–to bring to fruition. (Russian and foreign media, August 30-September 2)