Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 94

The United States and Russia announced unexpectedly yesterday that Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin will indeed have an arms control agreement to sign when the two hold summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg later this month. The hastiness of the announcements, however, together with lingering questions about both the content and the real magnitude of the arms agreement, seemed to render yesterday’s news oddly anticlimactic. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov captured some of this ambiguity when he suggested to reporters yesterday that the new pact would not be “overly ambitious.” Putin’s initial comments likewise gave little sense that anyone in Moscow sees the accord as a watershed event. “We are satisfied with our joint work,” was about the best the Russian leader could muster for reporters.

If the Russian responses to yesterday’s announcement were less than euphoric, that may be because the new pact appears to satisfy few of the demands that have served as the basis of Russian negotiating efforts since the beginning of the year. Details of the new agreement have not yet been made public, but comments by officials and observers from both countries suggested that Moscow had struck out on its primary demand–namely, that warheads due for decommissioning under the new arms cut plan be destroyed rather than stored. At least one Russian source yesterday suggested that the two sides had compromised on this point by agreeing that a “portion” of the affected warheads would be destroyed.

But this talk of a compromise seemed to be wishful thinking. In fact, numerous other sources made it clear that the U.S. desire for maximum “flexibility” with respect to the disposition of warheads had carried the day. Reports quoted an unnamed U.S. official as confirming that under “this treaty, both sides can make reductions in their own way, according to what serves their own best interests.” A Russian defense expert, Aleksandr Golts, was less diplomatic. “Crudely put,” he was quoted as saying of the new treaty, “the U.S. unilateral nuclear reductions policy has taken on the form of a bilateral document.”

Nor does Russia appear to have gotten much on other points that had stymied negotiators up to yesterday’s apparent breakthrough. Reports contained few details, but Russia’s hopes of adopting counting rules similar to those used in the START-I Treaty–under which warheads were tallied on the basis of the maximum capacity of deployed delivery vehicles–appears also to have been bluntly rebuffed by Washington. Instead the new treaty is said to enshrine the Bush administration’s novel demand that only “operationally deployed” warheads be counted. This means of counting would contribute further to the U.S. goal of maximum flexibility by permitting Washington to stockpile large numbers of warheads and then, if the need arose, to redeploy them quickly. Russian calls for the destruction of warheads and delivery systems were intended to make any such “uploading” of reserve nuclear warheads and delivery systems more difficult. While Russia can, and presumably now will, also choose to store some warheads and delivery systems, the country’s economic weakness means that it will have trouble preserving its forces even at the levels set out in the new agreement, let alone also maintaining the ability to quickly redeploy nuclear weapons.

Moscow had likewise negotiated to establish a clear linkage between offensive and defensive systems–that is, to include in the arms reduction accord restrictions on U.S. plans to deploy a national missile defense system. Exactly how Moscow had tried to formulate this demand is unclear, but some sources had said that Russian negotiators wanted the linkage of offensive and defensive systems included directly in the formal arms reduction agreement. The U.S. side, conversely, was said to be aiming at limiting mention of the offensive-defensive link to another of the agreements that the two sides hope to finalize at the upcoming summit–a broader political declaration setting out Russian-U.S. strategic cooperation. Reports yesterday were not clear on exactly how this issue had been resolved. They suggested, however, that the U.S. view had again prevailed (though one source claimed that mention of missile defense would also be made in the preamble to the formal arms cut accord).

The one area in which Russia was reported yesterday to have achieved its aims was in Washington’s consent to confer on the new arms cut accord the status of a full treaty, one requiring ratification by the legislatures of both countries. That is an apparent retreat from the Bush administration’s earlier call for the new arms cut accord to take the form of an informal agreement, or even from its later indications that it might consider an executive-legislative agreement (also a legally binding agreement requiring approval by the Senate and House, but one with less standing than a full treaty). Indeed, some suggested yesterday that the formal treaty status was the sum total of all that Russia got in the long negotiations process over the arms cut pact.

But some have questioned whether even this marked a real effort by Washington to accommodate Moscow’s desire to lock in the proposed strategic arms reductions. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Senators Jesse Helms and Joseph Biden), for example, had written a letter to the president in March expressing their preference for a treaty, which suggests that the Bush administration’s consent on this count may have been driven as much by domestic considerations as by any effort to satisfy Moscow.

Perhaps more to the point, the new treaty will permit either side to withdraw on only three months’ notice. Given the Bush administration’s well-documented willingness to withdraw from international treaties, and the fact that this one does seems to do little in any event to constrain Washington’s behavior, the conferring of formal treaty status is probably providing Moscow with small comfort. What it does provide is some small political cover for Putin to sign the arms cut accord at the May 23-26 summit. Within hours of yesterday’s announcement there was already some grumbling in Moscow over the terms of the treaty, however. Several top Russian officials went out of their way to declare that the signing of the accord would not stop Moscow from seeking satisfaction on some of the same arms control issues that it has been pursuing in negotiations to date with the United States. Such statements suggest that there may be little real enthusiasm in Moscow for this latest arms cut accord, and also may explain why initial reactions to its announcements were less than euphoric (New York Times, May 13-14; Reuters, AP,, RTR, Interfax, May 13; Vremya Novostei, May 14; Arms Control Today, May 13).