Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 155

Hopes of a possible Russian-U.S. missile defense agreement, raised by a pair of friendly summit meetings between the Russian and U.S. presidents earlier this summer, have been left largely frustrated in the wake of an at-times tense series of talks between high-ranking officials from the two countries over the past several weeks. These intensified consultations began with a visit to Moscow by U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in late July and continued in early August with the arrival in Washington of a Russian Defense Ministry delegation led by General Staff First Deputy Chief Colonel General Yury Baluevsky. Those talks were followed by an August 13 visit to the Russian capital by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which included meetings with both President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and concluded in Moscow late last week with several days of consultations between top Russian Foreign Ministry officials and an American delegation led by John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state. Bolton’s visit was aimed to some extent at preparing the ground for what is to be the next major meeting of top Russian and U.S. officials: talks planned for September 19 in Washington between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. And all of these talks are building toward yet another meeting between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush, scheduled to take place in Shanghai in October, and to what Russian sources at least are suggesting could be a pivotal event in Russian-U.S. relations–a November visit by Putin to Bush’s Texas ranch.

This resumption of Russian-U.S. arms control “consultations” (neither side is prepared to call them “negotiations”) was triggered most directly by the July 16 meeting between Bush and Putin on the margins of the Group of Seven plus Russia summit in Genoa. In what Bush administration officials and some U.S. media suggested at the time was a breakthrough of sorts (and a diplomatic victory for Washington), the two men agreed in Genoa to link talks on missile defense and amending the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to parallel discussions on reductions in strategic offensive nuclear weapons. The apparently good feelings generated by the summit were undermined by events that followed immediately on its heels, however. Senior Bush administration officials, for example, intensified their pressure on the Kremlin by vowing to maintain momentum in the testing of missile defense technologies–regardless of Moscow’s reaction. Putin, meanwhile, was forced to react to charges in the Russian media that he had made concessions to the United States at Genoa. The Russian president denied that the joint statement signed at the summit had in any sense marked a retreat by Moscow, while Kremlin officials suggested to the press that the decision to link defensive and offensive arms consultations in fact reflected a policy long sought by Moscow (see the Monitor, July 25).

The post-Genoa acrimony appeared to carry over into the subsequent arms talks. Indeed, the Russian press, obviously basing its conclusions in part on both official and unofficial commentary by Russian government officials, has been strongly dismissive of the results of the recent Russian-U.S. talks. The version of events they have generally articulated is one in which Russian officials have been left frustrated by the Bush administration’s alleged unwillingness to provide any detailed information regarding either its missile defense testing and deployment plans or its proposals with respect to offensive strategic weapons reductions. The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for example, quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry source as saying that “The United States has not explained to us what it does not like about the ABM treaty, and how many strategic weapons it is prepared to cut.” Another leading Russian daily, Vremya Novostei, said that nothing whatsoever had been accomplished during the recent talks. It quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry analyst who claimed that the “Americans haven’t answered a single question, at any level…. We want a serious dialogue,” he is reported to have said, “and that is precisely what we are denied.” The newspaper joined some other Russian sources in suggesting that the American side was not really interesting in serious negotiations with Moscow, rhetoric in Washington notwithstanding. “The Americans will simulate diplomatic activity until November,” the newspaper said. “Unless Moscow is softened up, it [Russia] will be accused of being incompetent at negotiating. The United States will quit the ABM treaty unilaterally in order to start building its missile defense system in May” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 22; Vremya Novostei, August 21).

From Moscow’s perspective, the negotiations with the U.S. side have also been complicated by some seemingly mixed signals the Bush administration sent. Russian news sources, for example, gave wide coverage to remarks Bolton made in Moscow that reportedly set a November deadline for a Russian-U.S. agreement on missile defense. U.S. government sources later claimed that Bolton’s remarks had been mistranslated and that the United States had not, in fact, issued any sort of “ultimatum” obliging the Russians to come to an agreement with Washington by the time of Putin’s and Bush’s November meeting. But Bolton’s remarks undoubtedly fed a Russian belief that the November summit will be a pivotal event, and that Moscow is being pressured to reach an accommodation with Washington by that date. There has likewise been some confusion as to whether the Bush administration is now insisting that the 1972 ABM Treaty be dispensed with entirely, or whether the U.S. side is still considering an alternative that would instead involve merely amending the treaty. Bolton appeared to indicate last week that the former is the case, but a Bush administration official was quoted by the Washington Post on August 24 as saying that Washington has not ruled out amending the accord and that it is still discussing with Russia which method of moving beyond the treaty would be best.

The Kremlin was also undoubtedly chagrined by comments Bush made on August 23 to the effect that the United States will withdraw from the ABM Treaty “at a time convenient to America.” Although Bush said that he had “no specific timetable in mind,” the remarks were the clearest indication from him to date that Washington does intend to abandon the 1972 accord. They seem likely also to have reinforced the belief in Moscow that the United States could announce this by late this fall. The six-month notice period would allow the United States to go forward with testing currently prohibited under the treaty sometime next spring. Earlier this month the Pentagon announced that it had given the go-ahead for construction to begin on a missile-defense test site in Alaska (Washington Post, New York Times, August 23, 24; Washington Times, Moscow Times, Izvestia, Vremya MN, August 23; AFP, August 24).