Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 8

Tensions between Russia and the United States on the subject of strategic arms reductions sharpened yesterday as Moscow reacted negatively to reports that Washington plans to store many of the nuclear warheads slated for decommissioning under a recent Russian-U.S. agreement. The Russian reaction came in the form of a terse statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko that called for reductions in the Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals to be “radical,” “verifiable” and “irreversible.”

This latest clash follows two other recent events that have rankled Moscow–the U.S. announcement last month that it will withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the indications that arose earlier this week that the Bush administration may be preparing the ground to resume nuclear weapons testing. President Vladimir Putin has done his best in recent weeks to moderate Russian reactions to these developments, but it seems likely that talks on strategic arms reductions scheduled to take place in Washington next week will be difficult ones. That is particularly so because of sentiments in Moscow that the Bush administration has hardened its stance toward Russia now that antiterror operations in Afghanistan are nearing an end and that Moscow’s help in the antiterror effort is no longer so urgently needed.

This latest disagreement was foreshadowed at this past November’s Russian-U.S. summit, when U.S. President George W. Bush announced Washington’s intention to cut its nuclear arsenal over the next decade to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. Moscow found those numbers acceptable, having itself proposed cuts to as low as 1,500 weapons. Russian analysts, however, expressed misgivings on two points: the U.S. side’s disinclination to codify these latest reductions in a formal treaty and Bush’s vagueness on the question of how the missiles scheduled for decommission were to be disposed of.

Now those two unresolved issues appear to have come home to roost for Moscow. Mixed signals from Washington have given no clear indication of the extent to which the Bush administration is prepared even now “to codify” the news arms reductions, and Russian hopes that decommissioned warheads might be destroyed rather than put into storage seem likely to be frustrated. Moscow has especially limited leverage on the second point, moreover, given that the size of its own nuclear arsenal is falling rapidly because of obsolescence and that it cannot therefore threaten to put large numbers of its own weapons into reserve (Washington Post, Reuters, AP, AFP, January 10; New York Times Service, January 11).

One interesting result of the past week’s developments is that they appear to have brought out of the woodwork two notoriously hardline Russian generals–Leonid Ivashov and Valery Manilov–whose voices over the past six months had been heard only infrequently on military matters. Their reappearance may be significant, given the fact that it was their ouster from top Defense Ministry and General Staff posts this past July that appeared to signal a new Kremlin effort to rein in military hardliners and to ensure that the defense establishment stayed firmly under the control of the political leadership on key international security issues. It was no coincidence, furthermore, that Putin moved against the two generals at precisely the time when relations between the Kremlin and the Bush administration began to warm (see the Monitor, July 17, 2001).

That extensive commentary by both men on the significance of a possible U.S. resumption of nuclear weapons testing–and by Manilov on the U.S. plans to store rather than destroy many decommissioned nuclear missiles–appeared on the Kremlin-connected websites suggests that the Russian political leadership may be willing for at least the time being to give the hardliners a public forum. Indeed,’s coverage of Ivashov’s and Manilov’s comments this week appeared to reflect a quick hardening in the Kremlin’s reaction to reports that Washington might be preparing to resume nuclear weapons testing after initial reactions in Moscow had been more equivocal. Whether the reappearance of Ivashov and Manilov if of greater significance remains to be seen. There has been much speculation in Moscow since early October that Putin’s sharp turn toward the United States and the West, and particularly his enthusiastic embrace of the U.S. antiterror campaign, could trigger a backlash among Russian nationalists. More recently, Russian commentaries have suggested that the same result could follow what many in Russia believe has been the Bush administration’s failure to properly “reward” Moscow for its pro-Western policies (, January 9-10).

The sense that Washington may be distancing itself from the close partnership with Russia that evolved late last year was captured in a commentary the Russian daily Vremya Novostei published yesterday. It observed that, while no one is talking about renouncing the recent Russian-U.S. rapprochement, Washington’s recent actions have robbed their close partnership in the antiterror war of much of its significance. The newspaper described U.S. plans to stockpile rather than destroy many of the nuclear warheads set for decommissioning as an obvious move to ensure strategic superiority over Russia at any price. But it also looked at a study dealing with ballistic missile threats to the United States that was released this week by a group commissioned by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The paper noted that the study contained not a single word about “new relations” between Russia and the United States, and that it again described Russia as a proliferator of missile technology and a potential threat to the United States. That was the sort of rhetoric the Bush administration voiced as it came into office, and Vremya Novostei suggests indirectly that it may indicate the way attitudes in Washington are now shifting toward a more confrontational posture toward Moscow (Vremya Novostei, January 11).