Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 85

Some three days of high-level talks, accompanied by intense arms control negotiations, may have at last helped to improve the atmospherics in long-troubled relations between Russia and the United States. But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s visit to the United States, the first by a senior Russian official since Vladimir Putin’s March 26 election victory, appeared to do little to clear up differences between the two countries on several key issues. Indeed, Ivanov’s remarks seemed during his stay to alternate between confrontation and conciliation. The first quality was exhibited during an address to the review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the UN on April 25, when Ivanov restated Russian objections to U.S. efforts to rewrite the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to proceed with the deployment of a limited national missile defense. Ivanov appeared to strike a more conciliatory note, however, after talks with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington, also on April 25, and in several subsequent meetings with other top U.S. officials. Ivanov also met during his stay with presumed Republican Presidential nominee George W. Bush and with a group of US lawmakers.

But although criticisms of Russia’s war in Chechnya were voiced by the U.S. side–only to be rebuffed by Ivanov–discussions during most of these encounters appeared to center primarily on issues related to strategic arms control. Indeed, despite the conduct of what were described by reporters as the most intensive negotiations in this area to take place between Russia and the United States since Putin’s election victory, there was clearly no breakthrough. In his public statements Ivanov continued to insist on the inviolability of the ABM treaty and Russia’s continued opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. Clinton Administration officials, in turn, reiterated their own claim that there has nevertheless been some small movement on Moscow’s part, and pointed in this regard to the fact that the Russians were at least still talking (if not actively “negotiating”) over U.S. ABM and missile defense proposals. The talks in Washington did apparently accomplish enough to fulfill Washington’s and Moscow’s main goal at this point: to begin finalizing an agenda for President Bill Clinton’s scheduled June 4-5 trip to Moscow. Strategic arms control issues are expected to dominate summit talks between Clinton and Putin on that occasion as well, although no one was bold enough last week to suggest that a breakthrough agreement of any sort is in the offing (International and Russian agencies, April 24-28).

The already problematic negotiations between Russia and the United States on these key arms control issues was further complicated during Ivanov’s visit by two additional developments. The first was the publication by the New York Times (and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) of draft documents said to outline the U.S. administration’s current negotiating positions (New York Times, April 28). The second was a blunt warning from Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina that he would move to block any arms control agreement that Russia and the United States might manage to finalize during the waning months of Bill Clinton’s term in office (Washington Post, April 27).

Both of these developments–and Helms’ remarks most obviously–reflected the growing politicization of the arms control debate in this, a U.S. presidential election year. Indeed, the publication of the Clinton team’s proposals opened up the administration to criticism from both sides of the debate. Those opposed to a U.S. missile defense system–and to a departure from or violation of the ABM treaty–complained at the administration’s apparent determination to go forward with missile defense development, despite the fact that testing for the system has yet to be completed. The published Clinton administration proposals provided missile defense advocates, in turn, with reason to complain that Washington was not prepared to go far enough in its negotiations with Moscow. As Helms made clear, they would prefer that Clinton stay away from arms control negotiations altogether at this point and leave the issue to his successor (Reuters, New York Times, April 28).

Politicization on the Russian side is likely to be just as intense. Russian lawmakers attached conditions to the START II treaty during their recent ratification vote, and will be joining the Russian government in closely watching for U.S. adherence to the ABM treaty. Moscow has already vowed to take various, but unspecified, “asymmetric” responses to any U.S. departure from the ABM treaty, and warnings of this sort can be expected to continue. Meanwhile, Moscow is already taking its case to the world. As reports noted last week, the recent Russian ratification of not only START II, but also of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), has reinvigorated Russian diplomacy and strengthened Moscow’s criticisms of U.S. arms control policies in international forums (Los Angeles Times, April 26). In Vladimir Putin Russia also feels that it has a more vigorous and effective leader, one who will be more successful in making Moscow’s case on the world stage. Russian diplomats hope to use widespread, international dissatisfaction with U.S. arms control policies to buttress their attacks on Washington on a host of other issues, including management of the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and of UN policy toward Iraq. Moscow also hopes to use its ratification of START II and the CTBT to deflect attention from its bloody and much criticized war in Chechnya.