Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 53

Russia and the United States appeared this week, at least temporarily, to sweep aside a host of differences on key arms control and other security issues, as a visit to Washington by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov concluded with claims that the two sides were closer to an agreement on nuclear arms reductions. Ivanov and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld each spoke positively to reporters on March 13 about the visit, with Rumsfeld saying that Washington and Moscow were likely to reach consensus on a legally binding arms reduction agreement. Ivanov, in turn, said that the two sides had made important progress on the arms reduction pact, and claimed as well that Washington and Moscow might yet finalize the document by the time that Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush hold summit talks in Russia this May.

The apparently amicable atmosphere at yesterday’s press conference and the signals Rumsfeld and Ivanov gave to indicate that the two sides were moving forward in their arms negotiations came despite a contentious leadup to this week’s meetings indicating that the arms talks might be in some trouble. Indeed, in answers given to questions from the New York Times on the eve of his arrival in Washington, Ivanov appeared to make precisely that last point. He reiterated Russia’s continuing opposition to the Bush administration’s plans to store rather than destroy warheads affected by the looming reductions in the Russian and U.S. arsenals. Ivanov claimed that the divergent understandings of the two sides with respect to the storage problem meant that they remain at loggerheads even on the fundamental issue of just what arms reduction actually means. He also said that the Bush administration’s plans would both worsen the challenges faced by the international community in controlling nuclear arms stocks and might also start a new kind of arms race, one in which other nations seek to develop speedier methods of restoring idled nuclear weapons.

This week’s Russian-U.S. talks appeared also to be complicated by press publications outlining the content of a classified Nuclear Posture Review the Bush administration completed recently. A number of commentators in Russia have reacted angrily to the U.S. document, criticizing it both for including Russia as one of seven countries that might be targeted for a nuclear attack by the United States and for its elaboration of some of the Bush administration’s ideas relative to storing rather than destroying nuclear warheads slated for reductions (see the Monitor, March 12). Russian concerns relative to the Nuclear Posture Review were apparently spelled out in a written request for clarification conveyed by the Russian Foreign Ministry to the U.S. State Department on March 12. According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko, the Russian side was particularly troubled over indications that the United States may be lowering the threshold for use of its nuclear arsenal. In a comment that reflected concerns voiced by arms control experts in the United States and elsewhere, Yakovenko warned that such a move by the United States could seriously weaken the nuclear nonproliferation efforts which Moscow and Washington have long sought to strengthen.

All of these issues were presumably on Ivanov’s discussion agenda in Washington, but the tensions surrounding them appear to have been downplayed in his and Rumsfeld’s March 13 press conference. The U.S. defense chief, for example, claimed to have briefed Ivanov on the contents of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. He also continued a policy of senior Bush administration officials aimed at defusing criticism of the review by offering assurances to Ivanov that the document “says nothing about targeting any country with nuclear weapons.” Ivanov, for his part, indicated publicly that he had accepted the U.S. assurances with regard to the Nuclear Posture Review. He also claimed that the two sides had made progress in their negotiations on nuclear arms cuts, saying without elaboration that the “issue of transparency” had been “clarified.” He also indicated that, in view of U.S. plans to store rather than destroy nuclear warheads, Moscow might choose at least in the short term to do the same. But he insisted that, ultimately, both warheads and delivery systems scheduled for reduction would have to be destroyed.

Given the vagueness of the comments made during the March 13 press conference, it is difficult to say if Ivanov’s visit has in fact resulted in substantive progress in the Russian-U.S. arms talks. A commentary published yesterday by the Kremlin-sponsored website suggested that it had. It described the visit as “highly successful,” and claimed that the latest talks had served at last to impart some movement in the talks on reducing strategic arms. Indeed, the same commentary suggested that, as a result of his meeting with Ivanov, U.S. President George W. Bush had personally overridden the views of U.S. military and diplomatic personal to embrace a new proposal from Moscow–one that calls for warheads taken out of service as a result of force reductions to be put in storage for a certain period of time, but then definitely to be destroyed.

Most other news sources, however, offered little to suggest that a breakthrough of any importance had occurred. For example, although Rumsfeld was quoted as affirming the likelihood that the two countries would sign a “legally binding” nuclear arms reduction agreement, that is neither a new development nor a clear indication that negotiators are closer to consensus on exactly what sort of form the agreement would take. There was likewise little mention of another issue that to date has been an important obstacle to finalizing an arms cut agreement: namely, Russia’s insistence that any such accord must also include limitations on U.S. missile defense plans. Bush administration officials have made it clear that Washington has no intention of meeting Russian demands on this point.

Finally, reports other than the commentary offered little to indicate that the two sides had in fact narrowed their differences over the warhead storage versus destruction issue. Russian officials have repeatedly argued that Bush administration plans to store warheads means that Washington is seeking something more akin to a “virtual” arms cut–or one in name only–than a real reduction. They argue that the administration’s plans to build a “reserve” force out of the stored weaponry would put Russia at a decided strategic disadvantage, and would therefore violate the principle that Moscow has made the basis of its negotiations: that of “equal security” for both parties. Since September 11 the Kremlin has made concessions to the United States on a wide array of security issues, including some related to arms control. But it remains to be seen whether it is prepared to move far enough toward Washington on the issues outlined above to ensure that the two presidents will soon have what they have sought since late last year: an arms cut agreement ready for signing at their May summit meeting (Interfax, March 11; New York Times, March 12; Reuters, March 11-13; AP, March 13; International Herald Tribune, March 14;, March 14).