Last week U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Moscow to discuss Pentagon plans to install ten missile interceptors in Poland, linked to a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic, as well as other issues that have complicated relations between Moscow and Washington. Rice and Gates held lengthy talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in what is known as the “2 + 2” formula. Before that, all four met with President Vladimir Putin. The beginning of the meeting with Putin was the only part of the talks open to the press, and the U.S. participants and journalists were taken aback by Putin’s chilly tone and mocking remarks. Putin issued a series of ultimatums and threatened reprisals if the United States does not take Russia’s opinions seriously and abandon missile defense (MD) plans (AP, October 12; Kommersant, October 15).
The talks did not lead to any agreements, but another “2 + 2” meeting has been planned in six months. In the meantime, Russian and U.S. experts may continue consultations. However, continued talks are not a foregone conclusion. Putin demanded that the United States freeze MD preparations for the duration of the talks: “You will not push ahead with your prior agreements with Eastern European countries while this complex negotiating process continues.” Otherwise, Putin added, “A possibility to reach an agreement will be lost because of your own actions” (www.kremlin.ru, October 12). Since Washington has announced its intention to continue negotiations and preparatory work on MD deployment in Europe, there does not seem to be much room for compromise.
The Pentagon says the MD deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic is aimed at future threats from long-range Iranian ballistic missiles. The Russian military and the Kremlin insist the MD deployment is aimed at Russia, however, since Iran does not have missiles with a range over 2,000 kilometers. Russia has threatened to aim nuclear missiles at MD sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaties (Kommersant, October 15).
The U.S. side had brought to Moscow new compromise proposals, already cleared with European allies, to try to salvage the CFE (see EDM, October 9). The compromise offer on CFE is apparently a serious concession by the West, but after the talks Lavrov told reporters, “Our opinion about the offer — it’s a step in the right direction, but not enough” (RIA-Novosti, October 12). After the talks ended, the Duma Security Committee advised the full house to pass a bill suspending Russia’s obligations under the CFE Treaty as of December 12, citing national security interests (Interfax, October 15).
Last February, while speaking in Munich at a security conference, Putin expressed Russian unhappiness with the INF Treaty that, at the end of the Cold War, eliminated some 2,700 U.S. and Russian land-based nuclear missiles with a range from 500-5,500 kilometers (see EDM, February 21). In Munich Putin complained that only the United States and Russia are forbidden to have such missiles, since “other nations have them — North and South Korea, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Israel — while many other nations are developing and planning to deploy such weapons” (www.kremlin.ru, February 10). Last week Putin told Rice and Gates that the INF must be turned into a “global agreement,” that all other countries must eliminate their intermediate-range missiles or Russia will abandon the INF (www.kremlin.ru, October 12).
In his Munich speech, Putin mistakenly named South Korea as having intermediate-range missiles, while forgetting to mention Saudi Arabia, which has Chinese-made DF-3A missiles with a range of 2,800 kilometers, and China itself, which has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear-tipped INF-banned missiles. In fact, China is the only country that developed its intermediate-range missile arsenal during the Cold War specifically to target Russia. Today in Russia, China is portrayed as a potential ally and a counterbalance to the United States and NATO. Russia is friendly with Iran. Russia is the main supplier of modern weapons to Iran and China, while the United States and other Western states refuse to sell the two any weapons. It does not seem to make much sense for Putin to threaten to abandon INF if China and Iran do not abandon intermediate-range missiles, while not doing anything to press those regimes to comply.
Of course, Moscow may be simply seeking pretexts to abandon both INF and CFE. Moscow has threatened to target U.S. MD bases in Poland and the Czech Republic with missiles based in western Kaliningrad region, but because of INF, Russia does not have land-based, non-strategic missiles of sufficient range. Another possibility is that Putin sees Russia threatened not by Chinese or Iranian missiles, but by U.S. ones planned for deployment close to Russia’s borders.
One day before Rice and Gates arrived in Moscow, the Russian state-run RIA-Novosti news agency quoted a MD expert who implied that the U.S. interceptors planned for Poland will actually be nuclear intermediate-range missiles that could hit the Kremlin two minutes after take-off, killing Russian leaders before they have time to respond or flee (RIA-Novosti, October 11). The genuine fear that Washington is putting a dagger to Russia’s throat may be the main reason Russia’s rulers have responded with a highly emotional, uncompromising rejection of plans for MD deployments in Europe. The Pentagon has explained that the interceptors are not designed to carry nukes, but many among Moscow’s ruling circles believe otherwise, and changing the minds of believers is a hard sell.