Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 70

On the eve of a two-day visit to Germany (which began yesterday) and with a key Russian-U.S. summit meeting looming, top Russian officials have emitted a mixed message in recent days on one set of issues that could dominate the May 23-26 talks between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush: strategic stability and a much-hoped-for Russian-U.S. strategic arms reduction agreement. On the one hand, the Russian political leadership, led by Putin himself, has gone out of its way to suggest that differences between the two countries on the strategic arms pact are not insurmountable and that there is still hope that an agreement can be finalized during the May summit meeting. On the other hand, however, Putin and other Russian leaders have suddenly begun to speak publicly and in critical terms of provisions contained in the Bush administration’s recently publicized Nuclear Posture Review.

Although some Russian experts and media commentators had criticized the review when it began creating headlines last month, the top Russian political leadership had taken a notably low-key approach to the issue. Based on Putin’s and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s recent comments, that policy appears–at least for the time being–to have been set aside. Why the two Russian leaders have chosen to speak out at this time is not clear. But some media sources have suggested that the move is part of a Kremlin effort to maneuver for diplomatic advantage prior to the May summit meeting. It is also possible that Putin is seeking, on the eve of his visit to Germany, to focus attention anew on a set of U.S. policies that have caused considerable concern in Europe and on which Moscow might expect to get a sympathetic hearing. In this same context, Putin may be taking a page from a playbook that he employed more openly last year, one in which Russian officials tried to present Moscow as a responsible partner on issues of strategic stability and to present the United States, by contrast, as a country bent on unilateral actions that threaten security for all.

There is nothing new to the recent suggestions from Moscow that a Russian-U.S. agreement on strategic arms cuts may be ready for the May summit. News sources have observed for a number of weeks now that Russian negotiators appear to have retreated on one of the key issues that had earlier been a prime obstacle to any agreement. That was Russia’s opposition to Bush administration plans to store rather than destroy many of the thousands of warheads affected by a Russian-U.S. plan to cut their respective offensive nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. But Russian Defense Minister Igor Ivanov appeared to signal a softening in Moscow’s position on this issue when he suggested during a visit to Washington last month that Moscow might not object if the United States temporarily stored some of the nuclear warheads scheduled for decommissioning–and that Russia, indeed, might put some in storage itself. The apparent Russian concession came after U.S. officials appeared to confirm the Bush administration’s willingness to sign a document that would make the planned strategic arms cuts legally binding, a condition Moscow has long demanded.

The recent expressions of optimism by Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov nevertheless seem noteworthy, particularly insofar as they come after Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said during a visit to Greece on April 5 that there are now no insurmountable obstacles to the finalization of an arms cut agreement by the time of the May summit. Putin was not so direct, but in a long interview with German and Russian media published on April 7 he spoke of “positive signals” from the American side during recent negotiations. Putin also described the prospective arms agreement in glowing terms, saying that it could serve as the basis for future strategic stability around the world and suggesting that its signing would help transform Bush’s May visit to Russia into an “historic” occasion. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in remarks made to reporters yesterday, continued with this line of thinking. He claimed that, while some problems remained unresolved, the two sides had made progress and had continued to narrow their differences.

But such statements notwithstanding, the degree to which Russia and the United States now see eye-to-eye on a range of fundamental strategic security issues remains unclear. Even as they were expressing their optimism on the chances for finalizing an arms reduction agreement at the May summit, for example, Putin and Foreign Minister Ivanov raised a red flag or two regarding disagreements that might still deadlock the negotiations. Ivanov appeared to suggest yesterday that the issue of storing versus destroying decommissioned nuclear warheads remains a problem. He stated directly that Russia continues to seek the destruction of not only warheads but also their delivery systems, so as to ensure that the planned reductions are not “virtual.”

Meanwhile, in his April 7 interview Putin spoke positively of what he suggested is Washington’s readiness to “consider the issues of offensive and defensive weapons in conjunction.” But it is not clear what he is referring to in this statement. To date, the Russians have called on a number of occasions for any future arms reduction agreement to contain provisions that would constrain Washington’s ability to test and deploy a national ballistic missile defense system. But U.S. negotiators have bluntly rejected this attempt to link offensive and defensive systems. Indeed, the Bush administration announced its intention last fall to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty precisely because it wanted a free hand to deploy missile defenses, and there is no reason to think that it has retreated from this position in its current strategic arms reduction negotiations with Russia.