Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 50

After a week in which recriminations flew between Washington and Moscow over a pair of trade disputes (see the Monitor, March 7), relations between the United States and Russia took another hit over the weekend when major U.S. news media published reports laying out some of the particulars contained in a classified U.S. nuclear policy document. Specifying Russia as a potential target of a U.S. nuclear attack, as the document does, would have complicated Russian-U.S. relations in any event. But the fact that the classified report, which is called the Nuclear Policy Review (NPR), was leaked to the press only a few days before Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov arrived in the U.S. capital for strategic arms talks with top U.S. officials appeared to be a particularly bitter pill for Russian officialdom to swallow. Indeed, news of the NPR seems likely to make already troubled negotiations between Russia and the United States on strategic arms cuts even more difficult. It also adds to a broader list of disagreements which have grown more pronounced in recent weeks and threaten to deflate expectations in the run up to the summit meeting Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush will hold this spring.

Official reaction from Moscow to the descriptions of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Policy Review has been muted, though responses from some press sources and from several top Russian officials has been more in line with the sharply negative reaction to the U.S. document voiced in a number of other foreign capitals. Against this background, senior Bush administration officials tried over the weekend to downplay the significance of the review, and to argue that, with respect to Russia at least, the document actually represents both an easing of Washington’s nuclear policy toward Moscow and a recognition of much improved relations between the two countries. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice noted, among other things, that the NPR abandons the Cold War-era emphasis in U.S. nuclear planning on targeting Russia, and focuses its planning instead on a group of seven countries that are seen as potential threats to U.S. security (AP, March 10; New York Times, March 11).

But commentators in Moscow have focused primarily on the fact that Russia has now apparently been included in that group of seven, indeed, classified as a threat along with the three states the Bush administration labeled an “axis of evil”–Iran, Iraq and North Korea–as well as with Syria, Libya and China. This classification, they intimate, means that Moscow now finds itself included by U.S. military planners in a sort of enlarged axis and thus as one of a core of potential enemies of the United States. The new classification is particularly telling, they argue, because it indicates that Washington has attached little or no significance to Russia’s voluntary enlistment in the American-led antiterror war, and because it suggests that U.S. claims of a new partnership with Moscow are mostly empty rhetoric.

Such perceptions would have clouded Russian-U.S. ties under any circumstances, but they likely seem more compelling to Russian commentators because they follow a series of other developments suggesting that Washington is moving away from the close partnership with Moscow that existed at the height of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Those developments include the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, its insistence on storing rather than destroying nuclear warheads scheduled for reduction under an arms plan still being negotiated by the two countries, its retreat from a proposal that would have given Russia a concrete voice in NATO affairs and its plans to base American military forces in Central Asia and the Caucasus (, March 9, 11;, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 11).

As suggested above, official Russian commentary on the NPR has nonetheless–and thus far–been muted. What Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday suggested that Powell’s and Rice’s assurances were not enough. Moscow, he said, expects answers from a “higher level” that would “make things clear and [that would] calm the international community, convincing it that the United States does not have” plans to use nuclear weapons. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, meanwhile, told reporters while en route to Washington that he intended to ask U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for an explanation of the new U.S. strategic planning document (AP, RTR, Interfax, March 11).

Other Russian commentary has been blunter. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Washington of deliberately leaking the contents of the report, and charged that the policies it outlines reflect a U.S. effort–after months of close cooperation–to intimidate Russia. “This is the policy of the big stick, a nuclear stick intended to intimidate us and put us in our place.” Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a notorious hawk who was retired from the Russian Defense Ministry last year, said that the NPR proved that the United States “has always considered and continues to view the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia as its geopolitical rival.” He was also quoted as saying that “the weakening or removal from the political arena of a strong Russian state is at the core of the geopolitical doctrine of the United States” (Reuters, AP, March 11; Interfax, NTV, March 9).

Yesterday’s edition of the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, meanwhile, contained several articles harshly critical of U.S. policy toward Russia and that suggested President Vladimir Putin’s policy of engagement with Washington had proved to be a bust for the Kremlin and a humiliation for Russia. Perhaps more interesting, the newspaper also claimed that the Russian president’s office and the Defense Ministry were now preparing measures aimed at countering U.S. strategic nuclear policies. These measures allegedly include a rethinking of Russia’s own nuclear policy and a possible decision to focus once again on developing Russia’s strategic missile forces. The newspaper says that many military specialists believe such forces offer Russia the cheapest and most reliable way to counter the U.S. strategic threat.

The Kremlin is reportedly also considering a reorganization of the armed forces’ command structure, apparently with the intent of unifying and strengthening command over Russia’s strategic forces. The newspaper’s few details suggest that Russia’s military and political leaderships may be rethinking plans, implemented last year, that de-emphasized the country’s strategic forces–and especially the strategic missile troops–in favor of funding conventional forces.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta also claims, finally, that, as a third counter to U.S. strategic planning, Moscow is considering strengthening its ties with China (and possibly with India and Iran). This too would represent a reversal for the Kremlin, which last year began moving Moscow away from Beijing and implementing a foreign policy more balanced between East and West. That move picked up momentum around mid-year, when a Russian-U.S. rapprochement became more evident, and accelerated in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 11).

The extent to which the Nezavisimaya Gazeta report represents actual Russian policy deliberations is, of course, questionable. The Boris Berezovsky-owned newspaper often runs articles sharply critical–even provocatively so–of the Kremlin’s foreign and security policies, which suggest that Russia is being outmaneuvered by the West. But whatever the newspaper’s particular political agenda, views such as those expressed in yesterday’s articles undoubtedly reflect the beliefs of many hardliners and traditionalists in Russia’s political and military elites. Whether such groups constitute a real political threat to Putin, or to his current pro-Western policies, is also open to debate. But there is little doubt that many in Russia believe the Kremlin has gotten little in return for the partnership it has offered the West, and that the latest leaks about the U.S. nuclear policy review will only reinforce that perception.