Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 214

Making a virtue of necessity and seeking to increase international pressure on the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin this week urged radical reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. Putin’s very public proposal was nothing new in itself. What did appear significant in this instance was his timing. The remarks came on the eve of this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Brunei, and during a brief lull in Russian-U.S. arms control negotiations following last week’s still unresolved U.S. presidential election. In effect, Putin’s remarks appeared to be aimed at putting the United States on the defensive during the APEC summit by focusing fresh attention on U.S. plans to deploy a national missile defense (NMD) system. The U.S. threat to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty (a likely casualty of NMD deployment) and Washington’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty have generated considerable criticism in capitals around the world. By moving anew to emphasize what Moscow is portraying as its own role as a leading proponent of disarmament, Putin presumably hopes to seize the diplomatic high ground in this area and to raise the political costs of moving forward on NMD for whoever finally winds up succeeding U.S. President Bill Clinton.

In a Kremlin statement to the press, Putin urged the United States and Russia to seek a post-START II agreement which would lower the number of nuclear weapons fielded by each country to 1500 by the year 2008, and to move after that to even greater–albeit unspecified–additional reductions. The figures proposed by Putin are no great surprise. Under the START II treaty, which has not yet taken effect, Russia and the United States are to lower their nuclear arsenals to 3,000-3,500 warheads each. The two countries have meanwhile been negotiating a follow-up START III treaty which envisions lowering levels of nuclear warheads to 2,000-2,500. Moscow, however, has long pushed for even greater reductions–to 1,500 or fewer–but Washington has rejected those proposals. The United States currently has about 7,500 nuclear weapons, while Russia is estimated to have between 6,000 and 7,000.

Putin appeared in his November 13 statement also to reiterate Moscow’s insistence that strategic arms reductions remain tied to continued U.S. observance of the ABM treaty. The United States “tells us that the situation in the world has considerably changed during the last three decades,” Putin wrote, but it has not changed “to a degree allowing us to break the existing system of strategic stability by emasculating the ABM.” The Clinton administration, of course, has tried in vain to fashion a deal by which Moscow would agree to U.S.-sought changes in the ABM accord in exchange for Washington’s agreement to the greater cuts in strategic arms Russia is seeking. U.S. Vice President Al Gore is expected to continue that policy if elected to the White House. Texas Governor George W. Bush, on the other hand, has advocated the deployment of a more comprehensive U.S. missile defense system and has said that he will not let the ABM treaty hinder that effort (Rossiiskaya gazeta, Washington Post, November 14; AP, BBC, November 13).

The waters were muddied a bit on the Russian side this week, however, by the public statements of Russian strategic missile troops commander Vladimir Yakovlev. Yakovlev’s remarks suggested some resignation in Moscow to the fact that the United States is likely to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defense system. They also hinted that Moscow may now be more willing than earlier to seek an accommodation with Washington on the issue. The one practical proposal made by Yakovlev in this area, however, is unlikely to be very attractive to Washington: He suggested that both offensive and defensive missiles be counted as part of the two countries’ strategic arsenals, and that any increase in the one, therefore, would have to be compensated for by making cuts in the other (BBC, AP, AFP, November 13).

The significance of Yakovlev’s remarks is unclear, with some observers suggesting that he had just been floating a trial balloon. Reuters quoted an unnamed but “well-placed” U.S. official in Washington as saying that the United States was taking Yakovlev’s remarks “with a pinch of salt,” in part because they contradicted the statement Putin made only a day earlier (Reuters, November 14). A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, meanwhile, immediately denied that Yakovlev’s remarks reflected official Russian policy. Yuri Kapralov, head of the ministry’s security and disarmament department, told reporters that “there is no softening of the Russian position on ABM,” and suggested that Yakovlev’s remarks reflected only his personal views. Kapralov also went out of his way to assert that Moscow remains capable of taking military countermeasures as a response to any U.S. NMD deployment, and urged the United States not to “force us to choose another path than a peaceful one” (Reuters, AFP, November 14). The exchange between Yakovlev and Kapralov was interesting because it appeared to reflect a bit of role reversal. To date the Foreign Ministry has generally been a bit more measured in its handling of the strategic arms control issue; Russian generals, on the other hand, have generally been called to issue stern warnings of the military responses that Moscow make take in response to a U.S. NMD deployment.

If it is meaningful at all, Yakovlev’s seeming resignation may in some respects be related to what is happening at home with Russia’s strategic missile forces. The rocket troops appear to have lost a bitter internal political battle over priorities and restructuring within the armed forces as a whole, and now apparently face a period of severe reductions with regard to personnel, weaponry and influence. It is this very inability of the Kremlin to maintain or rebuild the strength of its strategic missile troops–once the prize of the Soviet armed forces and the symbol of Moscow’s superpower status–which appears to be driving Putin’s call for increased Russian-U.S. strategic disarmament. Putin is intelligently making a virtue of necessity by converting the unavoidable deterioration of Russia’s own strategic forces into what is likely to be a popular diplomatic initiative for greater Russian-U.S. arms control–and for continued U.S. adherence to the ABM treaty.