Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 72

Russian-U.S. bilateral relations continued along a bumpy path yesterday as the two countries jostled over a series of difficult issues that include plans to reduce strategic arms, a trade dispute and Russia’s role in NATO. The geographic focus of yesterday’s action was in Madrid, where, one day after Russia lined up with the United Nations and the European Union to support U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Middle-East peace mission, Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov held a round of bilateral talks aimed at narrowing differences between the two sides in the run up to next month’s Russian-U.S. summit meeting. How much the two men achieved was unclear: Despite some upbeat comments from both men they appeared to make no concrete progress on any of the issues listed above. One issue they reportedly did not discuss was the spy scandal that erupted in Moscow one day earlier (see the Monitor, April 11).

On the subject of strategic arms cuts, both Ivanov and Powell reiterated their hopes that the two sides will finalize an agreement in time for the May summit. Ivanov appeared to make it clear, however, that several serious differences must still be overcome, including a continuing disagreement over the procedure for counting the warheads and delivery systems of those weapons that are to fall under the planned reductions. However, whereas previous reports have focused on Russian unhappiness over U.S. plans to store rather than destroy decommissioned nuclear warheads, more recent reporting has identified another, related disagreement. This one involves a reported U.S. effort to change counting procedures so that launch platforms are considered not in terms of the total number of warheads they are equipped to carry, as is now the case, but rather in terms of the number they are said to be carrying at a given point (or simply as one, regardless of their carrying capacity, according to some reports). Under this plan, the remainder of the warheads could reportedly be maintained in storage.

At least one Russian daily believes that Moscow is likely to accede to this highly disadvantageous counting proposal. In a bitter attack on what it suggests is Russia’s hapless negotiating strategy, Vremya Novostei today observed sarcastically that each new round of Russian-U.S. negotiations appears to move the two sides ever farther from a bilateral arms reduction agreement and ever closer to a program for rearming the U.S. strategic nuclear forces. The newspaper goes on to say that Washington’s current negotiating position appears to be one in which it will be possible to finalize a new arms agreement only if Russia accepts the conditions set by U.S. negotiators. In this same context, the paper also questions the purpose of Russian demands that the arms pact be a legally binding one when the accord in question is so disadvantageous for Russia to begin with. Finally, it suggests that Moscow is willing to make these concessions on strategic arms reductions in exchange for another agreement, one that would set out the parameters of a new Russian-American relationship. But the price the Kremlin is willing to pay for this second agreement, the newspaper says, could turn out to be much too high.

Whether Vremya Novostei’s conclusions are correct, and whether the two sides will manage to finalize an agreement by the time of the May summit, should become clearer over the next several weeks when Russian-U.S. arms talks are set to proceed at an even brisker pace. Indeed, even as Ivanov and Powell were winding up their talks in Madrid, a Russian military delegation led by General Staff first deputy chief General Yury Baluevsky was arriving in Washington for talks with a U.S. group headed by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. And Ivanov and Powell are themselves scheduled to meet once again to discuss the arms reduction agreement, this time in Washington on May 3 (Reuters, AP, Interfax, April 11; Vremya Novostei, April 12).

The lack of concrete progress on arms control was apparently paralleled in Madrid yesterday in talks between Ivanov and Powell on a now well-publicized Russian-U.S. trade dispute. Centered on U.S. poultry exports to Russia worth some US$700 million per year, the trade dispute has–according to Bush administration officials–emerged over the past month as the number one issue and irritant in Russian-U.S. bilateral relations. The dispute follows a decision by Russia’s Agricultural Ministry on March 1 to stop issuing import licenses for U.S. poultry products and to put into effect a total ban as of March 10. The move was seen by most observers in Russia as a preemptive strike, and then as retaliation, for the Bush administration’s March 5 announcement that it was imposing tariffs of up to 30 percent on a range of steel imports, including some from Russia (see the Monitor, March 7).

A protocol signed by Russia and the United States on March 31 appeared initially to have resolved the dispute (see the Monitor, April 3), and Powell arrived in Madrid this week expecting that the ban would be lifted on April 10. That did not happen, however. Instead, the Russian Agricultural Ministry said that it needed at least two more days to study some 300 pages of documents that U.S. poultry producers had submitted at the request of the Russian authorities. It will be a surprise, however, if the Russian side decides simply to end the ban once it has read the documents in question, because a delegation of Russian veterinary inspectors dispatched last week to the United States have expressed displeasure over what they said were continuing instances of shoddy paperwork and uncooperative behavior by U.S. officials. The Russian agricultural minister had suggested earlier, moreover, that even if the ban were lifted, the Russian government might consider imposing new quotas on imported chicken, including products from the United States. Taken together, the Russian threats suggested that the chicken dispute may be far from over, and that it too could raise a few tensions at the upcoming summit.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress took a first step yesterday toward addressing a Russian trade demand that has become indirectly linked to the chicken dispute. In testimony before the U.S. House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, lawmakers and Bush administration officials argued in favor of normalizing trade relations with Russia by exempting it from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik trade law. Jackson-Vanik is a piece of Cold War legislation that tied trade relations with communist states to the emigration of Soviet Jews. Although Russia has received an annual waiver on Jackson-Vanik since 1994, Moscow has pressured Washington to grant it permanent trade status and thus exempt it from the waiver process. According to reports yesterday, the Bush administration is now pushing for such a change prior to the May 23-26 Russian-U.S. summit. That could be significant, given that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick warned early last month that the Russian poultry ban could lead lawmakers to drop plans to repeal Jackson-Vanik. Whether the Bush administration effort will be enough to get Russia to lift the poultry ban and to forego import quotas is another question, however (AP, April 11; Moscow Times, March 7).