Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 9

On the world stage, meanwhile, a contentious two weeks for Russia’s diplomats appeared to close with the gains outweighing the setbacks. On the positive side of the ledger, from Moscow’s perspective at least, were the Russian parliament’s approval of a pair of key arms control treaties and a high-profile and highly successful visit by Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin to London. The parliament’s actions opened the way for Moscow to present itself to the world as a leading proponent of arms control and lent more weight to its attempts to portray the United States in the exact opposite light. At the same time, however, Russia continued to face sharp international criticism of its war in the Caucasus. Moscow suffered an unexpected embarrassment when the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva approved a resolution calling for an investigation into the actions of Russian troops there.

The Russian State Duma’s approval of the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty on April 14, and its quick follow-up assent to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) one week later, were significant for several reasons. The Duma actions represented a considerable domestic political victory for Putin while simultaneously strengthening his hand on the world stage. The START II treaty had languished in the Russian legislature since it was first signed in 1993, as disgruntled lawmakers remained impervious to pleas from former President Boris Yeltsin for the treaty’s approval. All of that changed with last December’s parliamentary elections, however, which altered the balance in the lower chamber against the communists and extreme nationalists who had previously dominated. The new, more centrist parliament was receptive to the arguments put forth by the Kremlin–and by the Russian Defense and Foreign Ministries–that START II approval made sense for Russia both militarily and diplomatically.

Indeed, approval of START II and the CTBT have provided Moscow with a diplomatic bonanza insofar as top Russian officials can now more forcefully portray their country as a world leader in international arms control efforts and, simultaneously, step up their criticisms of alleged U.S. failings in this regard. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov wasted no time in exploiting this opportunity. He used a speech before a key arms control body–the review conference for the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons at UN headquarters in New York–to attack U.S. efforts to rewrite the ABM treaty and related American plans to deploy a limited national missile defense system. Ivanov’s remarks appeared to signal that Moscow is not interested in reaching a compromise with the United States on the ABM issue, as some had thought might be the case earlier.

More importantly, perhaps, the Russian attack on the United States was aimed at tapping into broader–and growing–international disgruntlement with Washington over, among other things, its missile defense plans and the failure of the U.S. Senate last year to vote approval for the CTBT. Indeed, Russian criticism in this area dovetails nicely with Moscow’s more general efforts to portray the United States not only as a dangerous and irresponsible hegemon, but also as a threat to international peace and stability. Some will probably give Putin credit for this strategy, which seems capable of creating a considerable number of headaches for the United States on the international stage. Yet that would not be entirely accurate. In fact, the Russian Foreign Ministry–and some in the Yeltsin Kremlin–have argued forcefully over several years now that START II approval would provide Moscow with a powerful diplomatic weapon, one which would put Washington on the defensive and help Russia to resist U.S. calls for revision of the ABM accord. Under present circumstances, it could also serve to deflect world attention from Russia’s bloody fiasco in the Caucasus.