Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 23

Consultations between Russia and the United States held this week in Washington produced mixed signals, with strategic arms reduction talks between the two sides remaining deadlocked while parallel consultations on a draft statement of political cooperation and friendship seeming to move forward. In Moscow, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin appeared to step back from several months of generally positive comments about the United States to offer indirect criticism of Washington with regard both to the strategic arms reduction negotiations and U.S. President George W. Bush’s January 29 State-of-the-Union speech. Indeed, the Bush speech itself reflected some of the current ambiguity that underlies Russian-U.S. ties at present. Bush mentioned Russia only briefly in the speech, and then as a partner of the United States in Washington’s antiterror war. At the same time, Bush’s identification in the address of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as “an axis of evil” could only have set off alarm bells in the Kremlin. Iraq and Iran are close allies of Moscow, while North Korea shares a border with Russia and is a country of strategic concern to Moscow. One definitive result of this week’s Russian-U.S. talks was an announcement regarding the date of the next Russian-U.S. summit meeting: Putin and Bush are to meet for a day in Moscow on May 23, and then continue on for two additional days of talks in St. Petersburg, Putin’s home town and Russia’s second city.

The series of high-level contacts between Russian and U.S. officials this week in Washington suggested that relations between the two countries, while problematic, at least remain active. The principle talks, conducted by delegations headed by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John R. Bolton, centered on strategic arms reduction. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell held separate meetings with both Mamedov and visiting Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Those meetings, and particularly the one between Powell and Kasyanov, appeared to focus more on the broader bilateral issues, but particularly on a draft statement of friendship and cooperation both sides hope will be signed when Presidents Putin and Bush meet this spring. Sergei Kirienko, a former Russian prime minister who currently chairs a government commission dealing with the elimination of chemical weapons, was also in Washington this week. He met with Vice President Dick Cheney, among others, to discuss both Russia’s progress in eliminating its chemical weapons and Western financial aid programs directed at furthering Russian efforts in this area.

The talks on strategic arms reductions appeared to produce little movement, as Russian negotiators continued to insist both that future arms cuts be set out in a formal, legally-binding agreement and that warheads slated for decommissioning under the reduction plans be destroyed rather than stored. The Russian negotiating position has been summed up as a call for “radical, real and verifiable cuts,” a formulation devised to counter in particular the Bush administration’s plans to store rather than destroy many of the warheads now scheduled for decommissioning. Indeed, a top Russian negotiator, Colonel General Yury Baluevsky, has charged that U.S. plans to store warheads mean that Washington is actually seeking not a radical reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, as American officials have claimed, but merely a means by which to lower its readiness level. “This is not a reduction,” Baluevsky was quoted as saying, “it is a transfer of units of strategic nuclear forces from one state to another.” U.S. officials, meanwhile, have remained vague on the question of formalizing the arms reduction agreement with Russia, expressing their willingness to “codify” the cuts in some form, but making clear that a legally-binding treaty is not to their liking.

Moscow’s growing frustration with the U.S. negotiating position on these two related issues was first expressed on January 28 with the issuance of a Foreign Ministry statement accusing Washington of assuming a negotiating posture that “objectively makes the situation more complicated and deals a blow to the international order in this field.” The Russian president appeared to endorse that view, and indirectly to express his own dissatisfaction with the U.S. negotiating position in this area, when he was quoted yesterday as telling his defense minister that a strategic arms reduction agreement must be “legally binding, irreversible (a reference to the need to destroy rather than store warheads) and verifiable.”

Putin, meanwhile, appeared yesterday also to level some criticism at the message contained in Bush’s State-of-the-Union speech. In remarks to a group of newly named ambassadors to Russia, Putin was quoted as saying that any model of international relations “based on the domination of one center of force” has no long term prospects. Putin called instead for the construction of a “fair international system that rests on the strength of law and the respect of the interests of each state.” Russia’s own behavior with respect to the former Soviet states on its border hardly conforms to that high ideal, but his views in this particular case may be shared in a number of foreign capitals, where there is also concern about the potentially far-reaching nature of Bush’s State-of-the-Union remarks. More interesting in a strictly Russian context was that Putin’s remarks yesterday appeared to mark the first time in many months that he has alluded, albeit only indirectly, to notions related to “uni-” or “multipolarity.” Those are ideas that got much play in Moscow in recent years calling for Russia to seek the creation of a “multipolar” world order–one with many centers of power–in order to counter alleged attempts by the United States to create a “unipolar” world, that is, a world dominated by Washington.

Amid these real disagreements on strategic arms cuts and these potential disagreements on the Bush administration’s plans to expand its antiterror war, one area where the two countries did appear to make some progress this week was on a draft document that is to embody the improvement in bilateral relations that has occurred since September 11. Details of the document were not made public, but reports said that the draft, apparently being prepared by the U.S. side, involved a declaration of political, military and economic cooperation and the main principles of that arrangement. According to a Russian statement, Powell had expressed his “hope for reaching measurable results” in the upcoming Russian-U.S. summit, results “that would reflect a new character in U.S.-Russian relations” (Interfax, January 29, 31; AFP, January 29, February 1; AP,, January 31).

With so little hard information available at present about the Russian-U.S. negotiations it is difficult, at this early stage, to make an assessment of exactly where they are headed. But this week’s reports at least suggest that while the two sides may be up to the task of devising a vague statement of friendship and cooperation for this spring’s summit meeting, they may have more trouble hammering out agreements on specific issues related to arms reductions and, possibly, the future of the U.S.-led antiterror war.