Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 231

As had been expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded in a restrained fashion to last week’s announcement by the Bush administration that it intends to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Putin did characterize the U.S. move as a “mistake” and warned that it could create a “legal vacuum” in arms control. But the Russian leader’s decision to avoid any sort of harshly condemnatory rhetoric appeared to reflect a determination to keep intact the diplomatic rapprochement that has flourished between the two countries since Moscow signed onto the U.S. antiterror campaign this past fall. Not all the opinion vented in Moscow over the weekend, however, was quite so muted as Putin’s. There was some questioning of the Bush administration’s motives for making the announcement at this particular time, for example, and some restating of possible military countermeasures that the Russian armed forces might take in response to the U.S. move.

More notable, perhaps, was the view expressed in some circles that Putin had suffered a significant diplomatic defeat, one that might leave him vulnerable to criticism from hardliners who had opposed his earlier turn toward the West. Some of those expressing this view argued that Washington’s overtures to Moscow had proven to be less than sincere, and that, with the fighting in Afghanistan now drawing to a close, the Bush administration was cynically abandoning a partner it no longer needed. The implication was that Putin had taken enormous political risks by bringing Russia into the antiterror coalition, and had been repaid with a diplomatic humiliation rather than with the rewards that many in Moscow had hoped to reap. Here, some commentators looked not only at the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, but also at actions it took earlier this month that distanced Washington from a plan aimed at promoting cooperation between Russia and NATO (see the Monitor, December 7).

Putin carefully avoided any such direct criticism in his own remarks, however, which came during a brief speech broadcast by Russian television on December 13. In it, Putin expounded what will apparently be the Kremlin’s main line on the matter, namely, that the strength of Russia’s own strategic nuclear forces ensures that that the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM accord will not in any way compromise Russia’s own security. He conveyed several other messages as well. One was that broader Russian-U.S. cooperation should not be affected by the two countries’ differences over the ABM accord, and that, in fact, they should use their current dialogue to negotiate the creation of a new strategic framework to replace the one now being left behind. “I think that the current level of bilateral relations between the Russian Federation and the U.S. should not only be retained, but also used in order to work out the new framework of a strategic relationship as soon as possible,” he told Russian television viewers.

Putin spoke in similar terms during a long interview with the Financial Times on December 13 published two days later. Here, he again described the U.S. ABM withdrawal as a mistake, but in asserting that Russia “has all the necessary means to penetrate any ABM defenses,” suggested that the U.S. move does threaten the broader international security system. He also displayed some irritation over the manner in which the U.S. side conducted its missile defense negotiations with Russia. He suggested that Russia was prepared to be flexible on terms by which the ABM Treaty might be amended, but said that “nothing specific was given to us…. We heard only insistent requests for bilateral withdrawal from the treaty.” Later in the interview, moreover, he raised anew long-standing Russian objections to U.S. missile defense plans by rejecting U.S. claims that either terrorists or rogue nations present a potential nuclear threat to the United States. “But the object of the [ABM] Treaty is strategic ballistic missiles, and that is something that neither terrorists nor rogue states have at the moment and are hardly likely ever to have,” he said.

If Putin was hewing, on the whole, to a circumspect line with respect to the U.S. ABM withdrawal announcement, some others in his government were not being quite so careful. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for example, was quoted during an official visit to Africa as saying that the Bush administration’s withdrawal notification had nothing to do with U.S. national security and everything to do with politics. “This is a political decision, reflecting a specific ideology,” Ivanov was quoted as saying in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. “It is to be hoped that following this move, Washington will not act in similar fashion with regard to other treaties and agreements in the sector of arms control.”

Russian General Staff General Anatoly Kvashnin, for his part, warned that the U.S. withdrawal would “lead to a change in the military-political situation and reflect negatively on strategic stability as a whole.” It might also lead, he said “to a new round of the arms race.” Meanwhile, former Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, echoing some of the concerns expressed earlier by Putin, called yesterday for the United States and Russia to begin new negotiations aimed drafting agreements to fill what he described as the legal vacuum created by the planned U.S. treaty withdrawal. The one-time strategic rocket forces commander and current military advisor to the Russian president said that Russia should “draw up a new framework for relations with the United States and come up with concrete elements to safeguard stability throughout the world.”

Given that the actual U.S. withdrawal from the ABM accord will not take place for another six months (as mandated by the terms of the treaty), it does seem likely that talks between Washington and Moscow will continue in some form in the hope that an accommodation can be hammered out before the actual U.S. withdrawal date. Meanwhile, negotiations will also take place between the two sides on the subject of strategic arms reductions. In his December 13 remarks, Putin also revealed that Moscow would like to see the nuclear arsenals of the two countries lowered to between 1,500 and 2,200 warheads each. That range is not much different from the one proposed earlier this fall by the Bush administration, which was between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. The two sides must still overcome differences on the disposition of the affected warheads, however. More fundamentally, they must find a way to resolve the contradictions between the Bush administration’s desire to avoid an entangling arms reduction treaty, and the Kremlin’s insistence that the cuts be codified in an international agreement. Whether the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM accord will adversely affect these parallel strategic arms reduction talks remains to be seen (AP, December 13-14; Reuters, December 13, 14, 16; BBC, December 15; New York Times, December 14-16; Washington Post, December 14, 16; Christian Science Monitor, December 14; Financial Times, December 15).