Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 212

Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush wound up their three-day summit in Texas yesterday with a relaxed and friendly visit to a local high school that appeared to symbolize both the increasingly close ties between Russia and the United States and the ever more friendly personal relations the two men have forged. Whether the summit was a success in substantive terms was more questionable, however. Both made it clear that they had failed to resolve differences on the biggest impediment to the construction of full partnership relations: continuing Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense plans and Moscow’s parallel defense of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Speaking of the matter to Texas students yesterday, Bush said that the two sides “have a difference of opinion,” and Putin, that “[w]e shall continue our discussions” on the matter. In the run up to the meeting Putin had repeatedly hinted at his readiness to adopt a more flexible attitude with regard to the ABM accord. That raised hopes an agreement might be reached in Texas, one permitting the Bush administration to proceed with missile defense testing without violating the pact. Despite all the backslapping and bonhomie the two presidents demonstrated in their time together this week, neither revealed what exactly had proven the obstacle to an agreement on the missile defense issue (AP, Reuters, BBC, November 15; New York Times, November 16).

Meanwhile, a tempest of sorts appeared to be brewing among military leaders back in Moscow regarding some of the positions Putin had staked out during his U.S. visit. According to Russian and Western reports, some top Defense Ministry officials bristled over the news that the Bush administration was resisting Russian calls for the United States to codify in a treaty format of some sort the cuts in offensive nuclear weapons that Bush had announced on Tuesday. Military leaders apparently also voiced objections to several other developments. Some, for example, were said to have complained that the 2,000 or so nuclear warheads Bush said the United States would retain after the upcoming reductions was still too many, and that both sides should be willing to take the totals down to 1,500 or below. Others were said to have defended the ABM Treaty anew, indirectly rejecting the moderate language Putin has used recently with respect to the pact by returning to the more standard and well-established Russian description of the ABM Treaty as a “cornerstone” of strategic stability around the world. Finally, some Russian generals were said to have been furious with an assertion Putin made in Texas that Russia was prepared “to go as far as [NATO members] are ready to go” in the area of Russian-NATO cooperation.

Russian comments on these matters were attributed variously to the military leadership and to “military-diplomatic” sources. But the pointman for what sources suggested was a group of Defense Ministry hardliners was Vice Admiral Valentin Kuznetsov. On Wednesday he addressed an international conference on questions related to strategic stability. According to Russian sources, Kuznetsov heads what is called the International Treaty Directorate, which is a part of the Defense Ministry’s broader Main Military Cooperation Directorate. Kuznetsov’s remarks touched on most of the above points. In his speech at the General Staff Military Academy, for example, he praised the move to fewer Russian and U.S. nuclear forces, but asked “what will guarantee the meeting of the reductions and [its] verification? In an apparent reference to earlier arms control agreements, Kuznetsov said that Russia and America had “worked out a thorough mechanism” in overseeing and verifying nuclear arms cuts. “Discarding it now would be wrong,” he said.

Kuznetsov was likewise among those who questioned the need for Russia and the United States to maintain nuclear arsenals of approximately 2,000 warheads (Bush actually spoke of cutting U.S. nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200). “A question comes up, why so many warheads are needed to maintain national security if the earth will cease to exist after 500 warheads explode,” he asked rather dramatically. Kuznetsov voiced complaints on the question of NATO’s enlargement, saying that the Western alliance’s move toward Russia’s borders was creating problems for Russian national security. “Russia’s policy on NATO enlargement has not changed,” he was quoted as saying. “Europe is not a region where security may be ensured by enlarging NATO.” These comments appeared to be the most direct contradiction of the policies Putin has announced recently. The Russian president has in recent weeks continued to moderate his criticism of the alliance’s possible expansion onto the territory of the former Soviet Union, though he appears also to have made it clear that Moscow would be prepared to countenance this policy only if NATO recast itself to expand cooperation with Moscow and to give Russia a concrete voice in its policymaking mechanisms (AP, Itar-Tass, November 14; AFP, Daily Telegraph, November 15; Interfax, November 14-15).

It is unclear whether Kuznetsov’s comments and those attributed to other military sources represent the beginning of the “nationalist backlash” some commentators have suggested Putin is likely to face because of his abrupt turn toward Washington and the West. It is worth noting in this context, however, that the Russian military has proven to be a generally ineffective player on the Russian political stage, despite having absorbed some of the worst blows of any elite group since the demise of the Soviet Union. Putin, moreover, continues to enjoy the sort of high popularity ratings and dominant political presence that makes it hard to believe he is under any real threat from hardline or nationalist forces, uniformed or otherwise.

It is nonetheless interesting that the voice of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest advisors and his hand-picked choice for the top defense post, has been largely absent from commentary this week regarding the summit’s results. There have, moreover, been rumors of tensions between the two men. Equally interesting is the fact that Kuznetsov and others chose to voice their concerns publicly this week. Since early this year, and especially since Ivanov’s appointment in the spring, the Kremlin has successfully put a stop to the sort of public complaining from military leaders characteristic of the Yeltsin years that had seemed so often in the past to complicate the Kremlin’s conduct of foreign policy. Indeed, it was the firing this past July of Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the hardline and outspoken hawk who had headed the Defense Ministry directorate under which now Kuznetsov works, which appeared to punctuate the Kremlin’s victory in this regard. It will be interesting in the days to come to see whether Kuznetsov or other military leaders face disciplinary action for their comments this week, or whether their remarks mark the unlikely opening of a period in which dissent over key security policy issues again takes place. Given that Putin appears to have come home from the Washington-Texas summit with few of the tangible rewards that many in Moscow had been expecting, criticism of his defense policies by military leaders may be something that he would prefer to avoid at the present time.