Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 28

Relations between Russia and the United States continued along their bumpy course this week, as the two countries appeared to narrow their differences on a strategic arms reductions agreement and at the same time clash over fresh accusations by Washington that Moscow remains a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. The week’s events underscored anew that the high point of Russian-U.S. cooperation in the American-led antiterror war is now a thing of the past, but that negotiations and consultations continue to go forward on a host of international and bilateral issues.

The strategic arms reductions talks are especially important in this regard because both countries would like to finalize an agreement by the time Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush meet for summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg this coming May. Indeed, the issue has emerged as a major irritant in relations ever since the last Russian-U.S. summit, held in Crawford, Texas this past November. Bush and Putin announced then their plans to cut American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds, but Moscow was left frustrated by Washington’s insistence that the cuts be carried out on an informal basis absent the signing of a binding, bilateral treaty. In the arms reduction talks since that time, the Russians have continued to insist on a binding agreement, however, and Powell appeared in his remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 5 to signal a change in Washington’s stance and a new willingness to satisfy the Russians in this regard. The U.S. secretary of state did not spell out exactly what he had in mind, but a Washington Post report suggested that Bush administration officials are discussing three possibilities: an executive agreement signed by Bush and Putin in which both countries would separately state their reduction targets, a treaty that would formalize verification of the reductions the two sides intend to take, and a presidential proclamation from the United States aimed at reassuring Moscow about Washington’s intentions in this area.

Not surprisingly, Russian diplomatic and military officials were quick in their official response to welcome Powell’s remarks before U.S. lawmakers. Colonel General Yury Baluevsky, the General Staff officer who has headed the Russian team during several of the recent negotiating sessions, was quoted as saying that Russia and the United States were in a position to “prepare an agreement that would satisfy both sides and receive the understanding of the world community.” He further suggested that Powell’s remarks meant that “common sense is starting to prevail in our relationship,” and that the two sides should be able to finalize a strategic arms reduction agreement by the time the two presidents meet in May. U.S. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov spoke in similar if more restrained terms, describing Powell’s remarks as an “important signal that the two top nuclear powers continue to search for arms control agreements.”

In private, however, Russian officials were said to be more reserved in appraising Powell’s statement, apparently in part because Powell failed to spell out exactly what the Bush administration has in mind in this area. More important, however, were Russian concerns that the apparent shift in the Bush administration’s stance still failed to address several other differences. Moscow has been especially adamant that the arms reductions be “irreversible,” that is, that those warheads decommissioned under the reductions plan be destroyed rather put into storage, as the Bush administration has said it intends to do. Some Russian commentators (and some American experts as well) have suggested that the current U.S. plan to store rather than destroy nuclear warheads makes the reduction plan almost meaningless, because it would give the United States the capability to quickly redeploy warheads taken out of service. For the Russians, whose nuclear arsenal is rapidly shrinking because of obsolescence, this would not be an option.

Russian officials have also indicated that they may be seeking some sort of agreed-upon limitations to what the United States can do in terms of missile defense testing and deployment, and that they may want an agreement which links the offensive strategic arms cuts to U.S. missile defense capabilities. It is unclear, however, how hard Moscow is pushing this particular demand or whether it could ultimately be a deal breaker. The Bush administration, which announced late last year its intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty precisely so that it could pursue its missile defense plans unencumbered, is unlikely to agree to Russian-proposed restrictions in this area. According to at least one Russian news source, moreover, senior Russian military officials also harbor some more general skepticism about Powell’s September 5 remarks because they are unconvinced that he is speaking authoritatively about Bush administration policy. “In its dialogue with Russia,” unnamed senior Russian military officials were reported to have said, “the United States uses the old trick–good cop Powell replaces bad cop [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] only to force Moscow to soften up” (Washington Post, AP, Reuters, Interfax, February 6; New York Times,, February 6-7; Vremya Novostei, February 7).

Those Russian officials looking for reasons to doubt Washington’s sincerity with regard to arms reduction talks might cite recent comments by CIA Director George Tenet and a CIA report on weapons proliferation released last week. Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a strongly worded statement yesterday criticizing the unclassified CIA report for singling out Russia as a major proliferator of nuclear technology and missiles to countries hostile to the United States and, indeed, for calling Russia “the first choice of nations seeking nuclear technology and training.” The Foreign Ministry complained that this “is the first time in recent years than an official American document makes an attempt to question the devotion, willingness and ability of the Russian government to prevent the leakage of sensitive products and technology abroad.” In response, the statement claimed that Russia has “strictly” met “its international obligations to control the export of sensitive trade and technology,” and it called the U.S. charges categorically unacceptable.

Even as the Russian Foreign Ministry was complaining officially about Tenet’s remarks and the CIA proliferation report, however, a commentator for the Kremlin-connected website was suggesting that the CIA director had, in fact, used his appearance before U.S. lawmakers to underscore the improvement in Russian-U.S. ties and to make clear the importance that Moscow has assumed in U.S. foreign policy deliberations. The dissonance between the Foreign Ministry statement and the commentary was an unusual one, given that the website is generally seen to act as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. It is unclear whether the dissonance was merely a slipup of some sort, or whether it reflected a deeper disagreement within Russia’s foreign policy elite. That disagreement might involve questions regarding how best to respond to Washington at a time when the United States is distancing itself from its brief partnership with Moscow and is pursuing policies–with regard to arms control but especially in its labeling of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil”–that seem expressly designed to bring it into conflict with Moscow (AP,, February 7).