Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 135

Russia and the United States have found themselves at odds on a host of international agreements in recent months, the most obvious being the clash over the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Bush administration plans to deploy a ballistic missile defense system. On this and several other key arms control issues, moreover, Moscow’s stance has aligned it more closely than the United States with many of Washington’s traditional allies. This is not the case with a debate that arose at a two-week United Nations conference in New York that began on July 9, however. There, Moscow has lined up firmly behind Washington on an issue that threatens to introduce yet more tension into relations between the United States and its key European allies: an international attempt to curb illegal trafficking in small arms and light weapons. Diplomats from 189 nations are set to launch intensive negotiations today on a proposed action plan with exactly that goal in mind, but unexpected U.S. opposition to key provisions of the draft document have left many participants and observers concerned that the conference will fail to produce a final agreement. Current UN estimates suggest that some 500 million small arms are currently in circulation around the world, and that they may have been responsible for causing over 1,000 deaths per day over the past decade.

U.S. opposition to the draft UN arms plan, which Undersecretary of State for arms control and international security affairs John R. Bolton laid out in blunt terms on July 9, is based on a contention (one denied by other conference participants) that the UN-proposed curbs could ultimately clash with U.S. constitutional protections for gun owners. But Washington is also opposed to provisions that would prevent governments from supplying small arms to rebel groups and define “small arms” more expansively. On the latter point Washington would prefer to focus on illegal trade in military-style weapons only–not on the sorts of pistols and hunting rifles U.S. citizens are allowed to own. Washington is said also to oppose provisions that might ultimately transform a weapons curb agreement into a legally binding UN resolution or treaty on the export of small arms. The United States has, on the other hand, apparently agreed to support measures involving the marking and tracing of small arms, practices that were also embraced by a number of the world’s major guns manufacturers during a Paris meeting on June 26 (Reuters, July 9, 12; Washington Post, July 10; BBC, July 12; AP, July 14).

Amnesty International has observed that it is the world’s largest producers and exporters of small arms–the United States, Russia and China–that have put up the greatest resistance at the UN conference to the proposed curbs on small arms sales. Apparently using the U.S. position as cover, the Russians have devoted less energy to explaining their position at the UN conference. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ordzhonikidze did, on July 10, urge participants to move cautiously in their deliberations. He also warned that “exceedingly ambitious” controls on small arms could be counterproductive, that it was difficult to fight illicit trading in arms and that controls could undermine what he described as the balance of interests among nations on the arms issue. Ordzhonikidze conceded that his country is a major producer and exporter of small arms, but argued that Moscow maintains a “responsible policy” with regard to arms shipments and imposes strict controls on production. Russian officials have made similar assertions with regard to the effectiveness of their government’s control over the proliferation of missile and nuclear technologies, but those assertions have often received little credibility, particularly in Washington.

Moreover, if a recent report in the Russian publication Rossiya is to be believed, the Kremlin might be well advised to take the draft UN plan a little more seriously. Back in New York, Ordzhonikidze was rather unconvincingly quoted as suggesting that Russia has a particularly good track record with regard to controlling small arms because the country’s Defense and Interior Ministries have seized more than 650,000 firearms over the past two years, many of them in Chechnya. However, Rossiya quotes what it says are Interior Ministry officials who claim that there are currently some 10 million unregistered firearms in Russia. These, moreover, are not mere handguns, but are said to include large numbers of sophisticated firearms of the sort generally used exclusively by Russia’s secret services or armed forces. The same article identifies what it says are several channels by which firearms arrive in Russia from abroad, including from the Balkans and from Finland. But it suggests that the biggest culprit is Russia’s own army and defense industrial sector. The report points to severe funding shortages in both places, and suggests that poverty has driven personnel in each of these sectors to engage in large-scale thievery or production of weapons. The report also suggests that the Russian army itself is incapable of guarding its weapons storage depots, claiming both that much military hardware is stored in dilapidated barns and that in some military districts upwards of 90 percent of all weaponry is kept at unsecured sites (The Guardian, July 10; DPA, Izvestia, Russian agencies, July 11; Rossiya, No. 118, July).