Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 233

The Russian government has continued to signal over the past several days that it intends not to let differences with the United States over ballistic missile defense undermine improved relations more generally or, especially, slow efforts by the two countries to hammer out an agreement on cuts in strategic arms. That message, which President Vladimir Putin delivered in his initial responses to the U.S. announcement last week that it will withdraw in six months’ time from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see the Monitor, December 17), was reiterated by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in statements made on Monday in Moscow, and then again yesterday during a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.

Indeed, Ivanov’s comments, which came during a meeting with Russian missile troops, may have been intended as much for domestic consumption as for reassuring Washington. Among other things, he suggested that the Kremlin has no plans to direct more funding to the armed forces as a response to the U.S. ABM withdrawal decision. Ivanov also said that reform of the country’s strategic rocket forces would proceed along lines laid out well before last week’s developments. The Russian defense minister’s comments appeared designed to head off potential calls from hardliners for a military response to the U.S. ABM decision. They appeared also to signal that the Kremlin will hew to plans laid out publicly earlier this year that have resulted in reductions to–and an administrative downgrading of–the country’s once preeminent rocket troops.

In reporting on Ivanov’s Monday meeting with a rocket forces unit outside of Moscow, the website quoted unnamed Defense Ministry sources as reiterating Moscow’s belief that the U.S. move to develop a ballistic missile defense system will not threaten Russia’s security over the next ten to fifteen years. And this is all the more true, the same sources said, because Russia intends over that same period to continue modernizing and restructuring its Strategic Nuclear forces. But Ivanov apparently provided no new details in his Monday remarks regarding precisely what these reforms will involve. One given is that the Defense Ministry will continue in the years to come to field more of its newest and most capable intercontinental ballistic missile–the Topol-M (designated SS-27 by NATO)–which was designed from the beginning to penetrate a potential U.S. missile defense system. But only thirty Topol-M’s have been deployed thus far. At roughly ten per year, that is a far slower pace than the thirty to forty per year that had originally been planned for by the Defense Ministry. It is also an important reason why the size of Russia’s aging and increasingly obsolescent strategic nuclear missile force is expected to decrease so drastically over the next decade. The Russian government has thus far given no indication that it plans to speed up production of the Topol-M’s as a response to the U.S. ABM withdrawal.

Ivanov’s remarks also suggest that Moscow has no plans, at least at present, to implement any of the military countermeasures that Russian defense officials and experts have in the past suggested might constitute a response to a U.S. missile defense deployment. Those include the possible modification of the single-warhead Topol-M to carry multiple warheads. There have also been warnings that, in response to a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM accord, Moscow might itself choose to renounce the START II Treaty and to extend the life of its SS-18 missiles, each of which carries ten warheads. Under START II, Russia’s existing SS-18s are scheduled for elimination by 2007 (AP, Interfax,, December 17).

But the Russian defense minister voiced no such warnings during his visit to Brussels that began on Monday and continued yesterday. Indeed, reports described his talks there with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as very amicable, and Ivanov himself indicated after a two-hour meeting with the U.S. defense chief that the issue of Washington’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty had not even been discussed. What was discussed, however, and what both sides appeared eager to emphasize, was their readiness to launch new talks aimed at reaching an agreement on strategic arms reductions. With that in mind, they agreed yesterday that American and Russian experts will begin technical discussions in January on both a timetable for reductions and the levels at which those cuts are to be implemented. Indeed, Rumsfeld was quoted as saying that it will be important for Russia and the United States to focus on “transparency and predictability, which both countries recognize as important for our respective populations to feel comfortable as we make that dramatic change.”

If there was a discordant note sounded in Brussels, it came when Ivanov repeated a slightly reformulated version of the oft-voiced Russian warning that Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM accord could ultimately spark a nuclear arms race–a sort of “domino effect” in the area of nuclear security. “This concerns not so much China,” Ivanov said, “but Pakistan and India, Iran and Israel.” In the same vein, Ivanov expressed Moscow’s apprehensions that other countries, wishing to join the nuclear club but now constrained by various international agreements, could follow the United States by themselves denouncing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or even a protocol to the convention on biological weapons. “Russia is not concerned or afraid regarding its military security,” Ivanov was quoted as saying. “But we are very much concerned how other countries will behave and whether they will comply or not to any international agreement–thinking logically, if one country doesn’t comply, why should we?”

Despite the congeniality of this week’s talks in Brussels and Rumsfeld’s mention of the need to ensure “transparency and predictability” in any future Russian-U.S. arms cut deal, Moscow and Washington could yet butt heads over just how that deal is formulated. To date, the Bush administration has been ambivalent at best about the extent to which the new arms cuts need to be codified in a formal agreement, while the Russian side has insisted that this sort of codification is essential. Ivanov made precisely this point on several occasions this week. He reportedly told the Russian rocket troops on Monday, for example, that Moscow intended to compensate for the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM accord by negotiating deep and specific strategic arms reductions in the form of a “Russian-American treaty on radical cuts under strict international control and verification.” Whether Washington has precisely the same goal in mind is unclear (AP, December 17; Washington Post, New York Times, Interfax, December 18).

The need for a verifiable and codified Russian-U.S. arms reduction treaty was also emphasized in talks between Russian and Chinese diplomats earlier this week in Moscow. According to a Russian Foreign Ministry announcement, the two sides called for “the soonest possible conclusion by Russia and the United States of a legally binding agreement on future, verifiable and irreversible reductions in strategic offensive weapons.” The two sides also expressed the commonality of their concerns over the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which they said had been discussed in a December 13 telephone conversation between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Jiang Zemin, and pledged to continue coordinating their actions in order to maintain international stability. The Russian-Chinese exchange was interesting because it demonstrates, on the one hand, the extent to which Moscow appears to have retreated from an earlier course of foreign policy in which it sought, in tandem with Beijing, to rally international opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. At the same time, it may have been intended as a reminder to Washington that Beijing and Moscow could be driven anew to make common cause if U.S. strategic arms policy runs too roughshod over their perceived security interests (Interfax, December 17; RIA, December 18).