Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 66

President-elect Vladimir Putin traveled to a leading Russian nuclear design center in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region on March 31, his first official visit since his election on March 26, and one of symbolic importance for several different reasons. For one, the visit to the Chelyabinsk-70 complex demonstrated yet again his desire to accent national security issues and his own election-campaign vow to strengthen Russia’s defense industrial complex and the country’s military might. Russia’s aging nuclear arsenal comprises the country’s last and lone claim to superpower status, and Putin pledged to strengthen the sector while nevertheless consolidating–rather than increasing–its production. On the whole that had to be good news for the thousands of scientists and other nuclear workers at Chelyabinsk-70 and other centers of Russia’s hard-hit nuclear weapons complex.

At the same time, Putin tempered his vow to preserve Russia’s nuclear might by using the visit to Chelyabinsk to call also for greater cuts in strategic nuclear arsenals and to urge Russian lawmakers to ratify the long-languishing START II treaty. Putin reportedly avoided any mention of Russian-U.S. differences over the ABM treaty and U.S. missile defense plans. But his talk of strategic arms cuts and START II ratification could only be interpreted as yet another olive branch extended to Washington and to the West more generally. The Clinton Administration has placed special emphasis on START II ratification, and has linked additional cuts in nuclear arms–likely to be negotiated in the form of a follow-up START III accord–to Russian approval of the 1993 treaty.

The Clinton administration had to be a good deal less satisfied with a third element in Putin’s March 31 address, however, because the Russian president-elect also called for an expansion of Russian nuclear exports abroad. “We will definitely fight for Russia’s interests in world markets and won’t allow anyone to exploit phony values to drive Russia from international markets,” Putin was quoted as saying. His mention of “phony values” was clearly directed at the Clinton administration, which has fought for much of the past decade to stop or limit Russian nuclear power cooperation with Iran.

Neither Putin nor Russian Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov provided much in the way of detail regarding Russia’s plans. But Adamov, who has long been a vigorous proponent of increasing Russian nuclear construction projects abroad, was quoted as saying that Iran is prepared to order an additional three nuclear reactors from Russia, while Moscow and New Delhi could sign contracts later this year for an additional five reactors in India. The Clinton administration has repeatedly protested current Russian construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran, and has tried at the least to ensure that no contracts for additional reactors are signed by Moscow and Tehran. Washington charges that the Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation is advancing Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weaponry. Adamov’s and Putin’s remarks on March 31 will be received with misgivings in Israel as well. The Israeli government has also repeatedly accused Russia of leaking sensitive nuclear (and missile) technologies to Iran, and last month accused the Clinton administration of failing to deal with the problem effectively (Ha’aretz, March 17).

Aside from its practical significance, Putin’s talk of pushing Russian nuclear exports abroad and of providing additional reactors for Iran suggests the broader limits he intends to set in terms of relations with the West. Russian-Iranian cooperation–and particularly that involving the Bushehr plant–has long symbolized Moscow’s willingness to “defy” Washington and to pursue an independent foreign policy in the face of U.S. criticism. It appears that this attitude will not change, and that Iranian-Russian cooperation will remain a point of friction between Washington and Moscow in the years that follow the end of the Clinton Administration. Indeed, intimations in Russia that the new Putin administration will focus on the aggressive promotion of Russian economic and trade interests abroad suggests that Washington could face additional problems with regard not only to Russian nuclear exports, but also with Russian arms sales and exports of sensitive military technologies.