Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 114

A meeting last week in Brussels between U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, at which the contentious issue of U.S. missile defense planning dominated the agenda, proved nevertheless to be something of an anticlimax. In the public statements they issued afterward, at least, both men stayed close to script and largely limited their comments to restatements of their countries’ respective positions on the missile defense issue. In a personal sense, the apparently constructive tone of their discussions was to some degree significant, given the harsh criticism that Rumsfeld had directed at Moscow earlier this year, which included the charge that Russia is a major proliferator of dangerous military technologies. Indeed, in keeping with the Bush administration’s policy at that time of cold-shouldering Moscow, Rumsfeld had pointedly avoided a meeting with Ivanov–then serving as secretary of Russia’s Security Council–during a major security conference held this past February in Munich, Germany. These talks between the two defense chiefs, held on the margins of a NATO defense ministers meeting and as an adjunct to a meeting of the NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council, were the first of their kind since the Bush administration came to office. Ivanov was himself appointed to the Russian defense minister post only in March of this year. His predecessor, Marshal Igor Sergeev, had not met with Rumsfeld.

Despite their reportedly upbeat tone after the ninety-minute meeting, there was little to suggest that Moscow’s and Washington’s differences on the missile defense issue were any narrower. Ivanov played them down in remarks to reporters that followed the meeting. But in comments to the press before the talks, he appeared to offer a starker view. The disagreements between Russia and the United States center in particular on the nature of the military threats emerging in the post-Cold War world. Unlike the Bush administration, which has sought to create a sense of urgency regarding the threat posed by potential ballistic missile attacks from so-called rogue nations, Ivanov said that Moscow is most worried about the dangers posed by religious extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking. Over the longer term, he suggested, Moscow would also take “very, very seriously” the threat of medium-range ballistic missile attacks from these same “unstable regimes.” But he indicated anew Russian skepticism of the notion that America faces any real threat of attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles from these rogue nations. “That,” Ivanov was quoted as saying, “is nowadays an entirely hypothetical problem. There is no chance of it coming back onto the agenda for a long while.” He also reiterated Russia’s argument that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty remains a cornerstone of international security.

Not surprisingly, Ivanov’s characterization of emerging international security threats dovetails nicely with Moscow’s initiative–offered as an alternative to the Bush administration’s missile defense proposals–for studying the development of a US-NATO-Russia theater missile defense system for Europe. That is, if the primary missile threat of medium-range missiles is to Europe, then a more moderately priced Russian-proposed missile defense system, one that would stay within the confines of the ABM Treaty, makes more sense for Europe than the still only vaguely formulated U.S. plan for a layered system using land, sea and airborne weapons. By adopting this position, Moscow seems clearly to be angling for an arrangement whereby it would be a participant in any system developed in Europe–and thus positioned to sell its own antimissile defense systems to the Europeans–while simultaneously leaving itself free to continue opposing Washington’s strategic missile defense plans and the Bush administration’s readiness to abandon the ABM accord. Last week’s Rumsfeld-Ivanov talks thus set out what are likely to be the parameters of discussion this weekend in Slovenia, when Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin hold their first summit meeting. And while some Russian reports continue to suggest that the Kremlin is ready to bargain over missile defense and the ABM treaty, the Rumsfeld-Ivanov meeting suggests that the contours of a workable deal have not yet been formulated and that the summit talks are unlikely to yield a breakthrough in this area.

The NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council meeting, meanwhile, appeared to confirm that relations between Moscow and the Western alliance are continuing their slow improvement in the wake of NATO’s 1999 air war against Yugoslavia. Ivanov did repeat Russia’s standard criticism of NATO’s enlargement plans, but the Russian defense chief also reached agreement with NATO leaders to dispatch a team of Russian experts to Brussels in order to discuss Moscow’s European missile defense plan. No date was set for the consultations, however. In addition, Ivanov joined with alliance ministers in calling for the government of Macedonia to respond to violence by ethnic Albanian fighters with political pressure and “selective” force. Their common stance reflected a recent, and still limited, narrowing of differences between Moscow and the West over policy in the Balkans (Izvestia, AP, Reuters, AFP, Russian agencies; June 8; New York Times, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 9).