Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 86

Russia joined with a host of other governments around the world in giving a cautious welcome yesterday to U.S. President George W. Bush’s Tuesday speech laying out U.S. missile defense plans. The caution in Moscow was reflected, as was the case in many other foreign capitals, in words of praise for Bush’s assurances that the United States would consult with its allies–and with Russia–as it moved forward in the development and deployment of a shield against ballistic missiles. But the soundings out of Moscow and other foreign capitals contained some skepticism about the seriousness of Washington’s intentions to consult seriously on these issues. Officials in Russia and elsewhere were likewise cautious in their response to Bush’s condemnations of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Foreign and domestic critics of the Bush administration’s missile defense plans have argued that U.S. abrogation of the 1972 accord could unleash a new nuclear arms race and lead to a more general destabilization of the international security environment. Russia in particular continues to maintain that the ABM treaty is the cornerstone of the international security system, and Russian officials have in the past uttered dark warnings about how Moscow might respond if the United States were to violate the treaty.

One aspect of Tuesday’s speech which clearly pleased Moscow and surprised some observers was the positive approach Bush took to improving relations between Russia and the United States. He acknowledged differences with Russia in the area of arms control, but called for a new Russian-U.S. relationship based on “openness, mutual confidence and real opportunities for cooperation, including the area of missile defense.” Perhaps, Bush said, one day “we can even cooperate in a joint defense.” Bush gave further credence to the perception that Washington is shifting toward a friendlier stance vis-a-vis Moscow by phoning Russian President Vladimir Putin several hours before delivering his speech and telling him, among other things, that he would “love to meet him” before an upcoming Group of Seven summit meeting this summer. And though Putin was the last of a group of foreign leaders Bush contacted prior to the speech, the Russian president responded positively. He affirmed that Russia is prepared to join with Washington in discussing major cuts in strategic arms. At the same time, however, Putin reportedly insisted on the importance of maintaining the ABM treaty.

Bush’s suggestion that the United States intends to resume arms control negotiations of some sort with Moscow, and that cooperation between the two countries might eventually be possible in this area, is an important development for several reasons. For one, it will help the Bush administration to quiet European demands–aimed at both Washington and Moscow–that the United States and Russia hold good-faith consultations on the question of missile defense and nuclear arms reductions. Indeed, the Kremlin’s own pointed calls since Bush’s inauguration for a resumption of Russian-U.S. arms talks have presumably been intended at least in part at portraying itself to the Europeans as a more reasonable and accommodating partner than Washington. And the Bush administration’s ability to get the Europeans peacefully on board any future deployment of a U.S. missile defense system may depend ultimately on whether European leaders believe that Washington has done enough to accommodate Moscow (and Beijing).

But the Bush administration’s apparent shift toward friendlier ties with Russia is probably even more important from a narrower Russian perspective. That is, aside from the public relations side of the equation, the Kremlin sees the resumption of Russian-U.S. talks on key arms control issues as a validation of its own special status. The talks, if they do take place and Moscow has its say, will move Russia back toward a more central position in a key area of international security, and will provide a high-profile forum for Moscow to push its own views on the ABM treaty and nuclear arms reductions. That thought was reflected in the comments of unnamed sources close to the Russian government yesterday, who were quoted as saying that Bush’s speech is being seen as a “signal of the resumption of Russian-American consultations on questions of strategic stability as a whole, and of strategic arms reduction and missile defense in particular.” Beyond that, the Kremlin is undoubtedly hoping that improved relations with the Bush administration will also open the way to Russian-U.S. consultations on a variety of other international issues, including international efforts to deal with tensions in the Middle East, the Balkans and on the Korean Peninsula (Reuters, AP, May 1-2; The Guardian, The Times [London], AFP, Russian agencies, May 2; International Herald Tribune, May 3).

An end to the Bush administration’s policy of cold-shouldering Moscow could also have an impact on increasingly warm Russian-Chinese relations. Indeed, it is perhaps no accident that the first signs of a thaw in Washington’s approach to Moscow came during the recent U.S.-Chinese spy plane row. As numerous commentators in Russia and elsewhere have suggested, the Bush administration’s missile defense policies and more generally confrontational posture toward both Beijing and Moscow have tended to push those two countries ever closer together diplomatically. Their intention to further upgrade that relationship was exhibited over the weekend during a visit to Moscow by China’s foreign minister, and is expected to be formalized with the signing of a new friendship treaty during a Russian-Chinese summit in July (see the Monitor, May 2).

But, diplomatic niceties aside, there are clearly underlying tensions which persist in relations between Moscow and Beijing, including their differing views toward U.S. missile defense plans. Russian objections in this area center most forcefully on strategic missile defense and on Washington’s potential exit from the ABM Treaty; China shares those concerns but is most opposed to the potential deployment of a U.S. theater missile defense system in Asia. A resumption of Russian-U.S. talks on the missile defense and ABM issues could raise Chinese suspicions about Moscow’s real goals and motives. Suggestions that Russia might be granted a role in the building of a U.S.-European missile defense system–a policy that some believe could buy Putin’s support for terminating the ABM treaty–could also serve to further exacerbate tensions between Moscow and Beijing.

But Russian objections to abrogation of the ABM treaty, whether they are real or intended primarily to wrest concessions from the Bush administration in other areas, are nevertheless likely to remain the central conflict in any arms control consultations which do take place between Washington and Moscow. That was the message conveyed indirectly yesterday by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the only Russian government official to provide an official comment on Bush’s address. Ivanov welcomed Bush’s offer to consult with the allies and with Russia and reiterated Moscow’s readiness to agree to major cuts in strategic weapons. But he also said that it is impossible to view the ABM Treaty in isolation from other strategic arms control issues, and underlined that Russia remains committed to retention of the ABM accord. The same sort of message was voiced indirectly yesterday by what were described as Russian “military-diplomatic sources.” Putting their own spin on Bush’s speech and related developments in Washington, they suggested that the U.S. administration understands the importance of the ABM accord to Russia and would not unilaterally withdraw from the treaty. “Moscow has received signals from Washington that there are forces in the American administration which understand the negative consequences of the United States taking unilateral decisions about leaving ABM and deploying a national missile defense system,” the sources said. Given the criticism that Bush leveled against the ABM treaty during his Tuesday speech, that is an assertion which seems likely to be tested in the weeks and months to come (Reuters, Russian agencies, May 2).