Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 86

Another week of intensive negotiations appears to have brought Russia and the United States ever closer to an agreement on reducing their strategic nuclear arsenals, but officials yesterday remained unwilling to say with certainty that the accord will be ready for signing when Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin meet for three days of summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg later this month. Reports out of Washington yesterday quoted U.S. officials as saying that there is hope that an agreement can be finalized by the May 23-26 summit. J.D. Crouch, a top aide to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told reporters that the last roadblocks to a deal are relatively minor and could be overcome by summit’s start. But Rumsfeld himself appeared to be more circumspect, describing the negotiations as a “process,” and saying that it has “been going along very well.”

Yesterday’s comments follow roughly a week of highly intensive negotiations between the two countries that began with U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s April 23-24 visit to Moscow. Bolton, who has headed the U.S. delegation in talks between the Russian and U.S. defense leaderships (parallel talks have also been taking place between the diplomatic departments of both governments) raised some eyebrows when he departed Moscow on April 24 prior to what was to have been a second day of negotiations (see the Monitor, April 25).

Rather than signaling a breakdown in the talks, however, his departure may have marked a turning point of sorts. Subsequent reports suggested that the Russian side had advanced some new proposals during the April 23 meeting and that Bolton had returned to Washington in order to consult on them. Bolton then returned to Moscow this week in time for a brief visit that Rumsfeld paid to the Russian capital on April 29 for additional talks with top Russian officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Russian reports also said that Bolton had met with one of Russia’s chief negotiators, Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov, during Rumsfeld’s stay, and that he stayed on following Rumsfeld’s departure for additional consultations.

The intensive discussions are scheduled to continue today, when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrives in Washington for two days of talks of his own with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other Bush administration officials. The Powell-Ivanov talks are expected to center on both the arms reduction accord and final preparation for the May 23-26 summit.

To date, the Russian-U.S. arms reduction talks have been held behind closed doors. This relative secrecy has led to some conflicting media reports regarding both the details of the agreements under discussion and the points on which the two sides continue to disagree. Russian and U.S. officials in their public statements, and most news media reporting on the talks, are agreed that that one major roadblock to an agreement is Russia’s continued opposition to U.S. plans that call for storing rather than destroying thousands of nuclear warheads scheduled for retirement under the Bush-Putin arms cut initiative. Many analysts are also agreed that Moscow fears the U.S. plan to maintain a large warhead reserve would give Washington a “breakout” potential–that is, the ability to quickly redeploy thousands of warheads beyond the 1,700-2,200 “operationally deployed” warheads mandated under the Bush-Putin reduction proposal.

Given the deteriorating state of its own nuclear arsenal and cash shortages faced by the Russian government, the Russian armed forces would be unable to maintain a comparable reserve force of its own. Arms control critics of the Bush administration in the United States, meanwhile, have warned that the U.S. nuclear reserve plan could nonetheless lead Russia to store thousands of its own warheads, a development that they say would pose serious security and proliferation risks. Both the Russian government and Russian and U.S. critics of the Bush administration plan have also charged that the creation of an easily deployable nuclear reserve would in fact do much to render the announced reductions of “operationally deployable” warheads meaningless. Indeed, some in Russia have called it a plan for “virtual” arms reductions.

If news reports are clear that the issue of counting warheads remains a major obstacle to an arms reduction agreement, they are less clear about some other aspects of the proposed reduction plan. News reports have differed, for example, over whether or exactly in what respect Russian and U.S. negotiators might be clashing on the related issue of how to count and dispose of delivery systems affected by the reduction plan (Interfax, April 29; AP, April 30, May 1;, April 29-30, May 1; New York Times, April 30; Washington Post, April 28).

More important, perhaps, are reported differences between Russia and the United States over how to address the issue of U.S. missile defense plans. Numerous news reports have ignored the issue entirely, yet some Russian and Western accounts have suggested it remains a major stumbling block. At issue is a reported Russian insistence that offensive arms cuts be linked with restrictions of some sort on U.S. plans to develop and deploy a national missile defense system. According to a diplomatic source quoted by the Russian Itar-Tass news agency, Moscow is seeking to address this linkage of offensive and defensive systems directly in the arms cut agreement currently being negotiated. The U.S. side, on the other hand, reportedly wants to include it only in a second document that is being negotiated for the May 23 summit–a political declaration devoted to the new Russian-U.S. strategic relationship. An unnamed Bush administration official has been quoted in this context as confirming what he described as an effort by Moscow to negotiate the scope of the U.S. antiballistic missile system and to codify limitations on the system’s development. But he reiterated the administration’s disinclination to discuss missile defense limits, and suggested that the issue would, in the end, not be a “deal-breaker” (AP, August 29, 30).

Against this background, and given the weak hand Russia is playing in the arms cut negotiations, some in Moscow have raised the question of whether the Kremlin would be better off signing a “bad” agreement with Washington–that is, one in which its concerns about warhead storage and other issues are not satisfactorily addressed–or whether any agreement is better at this point than none at all (RFE/RL, March 21; AP, April 16). For Putin, the stakes in making this decision are high. He has invested considerable political capital in supporting the U.S. antiterror drive and in embracing the West more generally, and may feel that he needs an arms cut agreement to properly crown the upcoming summit and his own pro-Western policies. According to some reports, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov suggested following his recent talks in Moscow with Rumsfeld that the new proposals offered by Moscow do indeed offer a new flexibility in the Kremlin’s approach to warhead counting and the other issues said to be preventing Russia and the United States from finalizing an agreement (New York Times, April 30). Whether that is true should become clearer in the days to come, when the two sides will have to decide whether a major arms cut agreement is in fact to be the centerpiece of their fast approaching summit.