Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 116

Russian and U.S. leaders have engaged in some final maneuvering over the past few days on the eve of a presidential summit that is expected to yield few concrete results. As U.S. President George W. Bush continued consultations with top European leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted off to Shanghai for a meeting with the leaders of China and four Central Asian countries, both Russian and U.S. officials appeared to be playing down expectations for this Saturday’s meeting in Slovenia. Although the possibility of a surprise in Ljubljana cannot be ruled out, the chances of a breakthrough seem slim. For one thing, the meeting between the two leaders–their first–is to last only a few hours and is for that reason likely to be more of a get-acquainted session than a serious effort to resolve key differences between Washington and Moscow. In addition, there has been little to suggest that the two sides are any closer to resolving their most important disagreement, which centers on Russian opposition to the Bush administration’s missile defense plans.

That assessment is based not only on long-standing differences between the two sides on this issue, but on the positions each has staked out this week. In his meetings with European leaders, Bush reiterated his administration’s determination to proceed as quickly as possible with the deployment of a ballistic missile defense system and its readiness to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty en route. Moreover, Bush also appeared to make clear this week his administration’s unwillingness to negotiate new formal agreements regulating proposed reductions in offensive nuclear weapons. That is, he has called for major–albeit unspecified–reductions in these weapons systems, and his administration apparently will proceed in this area unilaterally and without engaging in formal arms reduction talks. “We will consult on defense weapons (missile defense). On the other hand, we’ll move by ourselves on offensive weapons (nuclear warheads),” Bush was quoted as saying in Brussels.

These positions go to the core of the disagreements over arms control between Moscow and Washington. Russian officials reiterated this past week Moscow’s insistence that the United States stay within the bounds of the ABM accord, with former Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev taking the lead. Now serving as a top military aide to Putin, Sergeev was quoted on June 13 as saying that “Russia’s position on the need to maintain the ABM treaty is categorical and unchanged.” Sergeev, who last month called U.S. arguments in favor of strategic missile defense “laughable,” also accused the Bush administration once again of fabricating threats so as to justify deployment of the missile defense system.

Not surprisingly, much the same message came out of a meeting in Shanghai yesterday between Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The two men, whose respective countries have led international criticism of the Bush administration’s missile defense plans, are set to have a full-fledged summit of their own next month in Moscow. And while they apparently spent little time on the missile defense issue yesterday, they did restate what they described as their joint opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. “Our views on this [issue] fully coincide with China,” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was quoted as saying in Shanghai.

Speculation is nonetheless rife that Moscow will eventually be willing to deal on the related issues of missile defense and the ABM Treaty. But the Kremlin’s presumed bottom line in these negotiations–that the Bush administration limit itself to tactical missile defenses that retain some conformity with the ABM treaty–is likely to be rebuffed in Washington. In the meantime, however, the Kremlin may be prepared to play a waiting game. Although Bush administration officials claimed this week to have made some progress in winning European allies over to its position on missile defense, Moscow undoubtedly observed with some satisfaction the continuing difficulties that the U.S. side faced in this endeavor and, particularly, the clear objections to U.S. plans voiced by France and Germany. Against this background, and with the knowledge that the Democrats’ control of the U.S. Senate could further complicate Bush administration plans in this area, Moscow seems likely to bide its time and hope for concessions from Washington.

Indeed, Russia’s effort to block U.S. missile defense plans, which has long rested in part on parallel European concerns, was perhaps bolstered this week by Bush’s apparently straight-forward assertion that the United States would proceed unilaterally with reductions of offensive strategic arms. Moscow opposes this position at least in part because it would effectively curtail or end a tradition of Russian-U.S. negotiations that has helped Russia to maintain the veneer of superpower status. Like some Western critics, Moscow may also oppose unilateral cuts because they would present complications in terms of formalization and verification. But the Bush statement has perhaps given Moscow a new and influential ally in this battle to ensure that offensive strategic arms reductions–which are much desired in Europe and Russia–are implemented on the basis of formal arms agreements. Reports said that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was upset by the U.S. position on this issue, and that he wants nuclear arms cuts to proceed in line with international agreements. Indeed, the sense conveyed by Bush this week that Washington intends to proceed with the implementation of its defense plans regardless of international opinion reportedly triggered a broader response from both France and Germany: Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac said that they intended to launch a new arms control initiative of their own that would seek to use political means to curb the proliferation of missile technologies. If seriously pursued, a move like this could increase tensions between the United States and Europe, while simultaneously creating more common ground for the Europeans and Russians.

Against this background, the June 16 Russian-U.S. summit appears more likely than ever to be but the opening gambit in a long contest aimed at reshaping the international security environment. Indeed, U.S. officials have themselves been quoted as saying that they see this weekend’s talks as primarily an exercise in laying the groundwork for a second Putin-Bush meeting that is scheduled for July at the Group of Seven plus Russia meeting in Genoa. Moreover, the two men are scheduled to meet at least one additional time this year, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in Shanghai in October. The chances for an agreement between Russia and the United States on these contentious issues should be at least somewhat clearer by then, as should the chances for a broader agreement on missile defense and related security issues between and among the United States, Russia, the European Union and China.