Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 96

Russia and the United States look set to launch a “new era” in bilateral relations this week, as the Bush administration puts an official and at least temporary end to a policy of cold-shouldering Moscow by playing host to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov for two days of talks in Washington. Ivanov is scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell tomorrow, and reports say that he is also likely to see President George W. Bush before his departure. This week’s talks, which mark the first time that a Russian or U.S. foreign minister has visited the other country’s capital since Bush’s inauguration, are the culmination of the U.S. president’s May 1 speech on U.S. missile defense plans. In the address Bush reversed his administration’s previously confrontational posture toward Russia by calling for a new Russian-U.S. relationship based on “openness, mutual confidence and real opportunities for cooperation, including in the area of missile defense.” In a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin that preceded the May 1 speech, Bush also spoke of his desire to meet with the Russian leader prior to the Group of Seven plus Russia summit scheduled for July in Genoa, which was to have been their first meeting (see the Monitor, May 3). Ivanov and Powell have reportedly conferred frequently in recent days on that subject, and the two sides intend to focus attention during this week’s talks on arranging a first Putin-Bush summit meeting.

The Bush administration’s new willingness to engage Moscow was also in evidence late last week when an administration delegation led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz visited Moscow at the end of a tour that also included stops in several European capitals. The U.S. team had been dispatched by the White House to explain the Bush administration’s missile defense plans. That effort too grew out of the May 1 speech, when Bush outlined a policy by which the United States will take action to consult with allies and with other key governments around the globe on key questions of missile defense and nuclear arms control. Moscow, which had been among the most persistent critics of what it said was the new U.S. administration’s penchant for unilateralism, welcomed Bush’s commitments in this area. Indeed, the Kremlin’s restrained and even positive reaction to the May 1 speech appears to have been based as much on the U.S. pledge to consult and engage as it was on Bush’s signaling of a new policy toward Russia.

That the road ahead for Russia and U.S. arms control negotiators–and for political leaders in Moscow and Washington–may not be an entirely smooth one, however, was suggested by the outcome of the Wolfowitz delegation’s visit to Russia. Indeed, the Moscow talks ended with the inconclusive air that characterized numerous Russian-U.S. talks on missile defense and strategic arms control during the Clinton administration. The U.S. delegation nonetheless attempted to present the talks in the best light possible. U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley stated to reporters in Moscow that “the fact that we are meeting and opening this dialogue is a sign of progress.” Hadley also described the talks as a “first step in a consultation process which will continue over the weeks ahead and include discussions and consultations between our two presidents.”

The U.S. delegation’s Russian interlocutors, however, took a less positive view of the talks. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko, for example, said that the consultations had been substantive and went out of his way to emphasize that “discussions will continue.” But he complained that the talks had resulted in “more questions than answers,” and told reporters that the “United States has been unable to convince us how to solve the problems of international security without damaging disarmament agreements.” That last reference was to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which the Bush administration appears prepared to abrogate in order to develop a missile defense system and which Moscow continues to defend as a linchpin of the international security system.

Former Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, a one-time strategic rocket forces commander and now an adviser to the Russian president, was even more dismissive of the U.S. team’s negotiation efforts. He described Washington’s explanations for the planned missile shield as “laughable,” and complained that the U.S. team had offered no reply to a Russian offer aimed at creating a “joint group of missile specialists–to talk about missile threats in terms of science, not politics.” Sergeev’s last remark is consistent with an earlier Russian proposal for the United States, Europe and Russia to cooperate in the development of a European theater missile defense system. Under that plan Moscow put an emphasis on first identifying whether a missile threat to Europe from so-called “rogue” states does indeed exist, and, if so, moving only then to talk about possible countermeasures. Sergeev’s remark also reflects the stated belief of military specialists in Russia that the United States has deliberately exaggerated the missile threat posed by such countries as North Korea and Iraq in order to justify deployment of a missile defense system. That Moscow was taking some pleasure in the Bush administration’s difficulties in selling its missile defense plan to Europe was indicated by newspaper reports suggesting that the efforts of the Wolfowitz delegation had met with little success during its brief European tour (Reuters, May 11, 14, 16; BBC, Kommersant, May 11; New York Times, Washington Post, May 12; AP, May 14).