Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 206

The long standoff between Russia and the United States over the 1972 ABM treaty appeared to intensify further this week as Russian military leaders engaged in a bit of saber-rattling by test launching a short-range antimissile rocket. The launch, which was carried out at the Sary-Shagan testing ground in Kazakhstan on November 2, came on the same day that Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned the U.S. government of “extremely dangerous consequences” if the United States proceeded with plans for the deployment of a limited national missile defense system. Yeltsin’s warning was contained in a message dispatched to U.S. President Bill Clinton. It was also sent to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and a host of other world leaders. Moscow, moreover, followed that warning with a condemnation on November 3 of Hungary’s prime minister for remarks he made regarding the possible deployment of nuclear weapons in Hungary. Moscow depicted his remarks as yet another threat from the West and a logical culmination of NATO’s enlargement plans (see the Monitor, November 3-4).

There were few details available of last week’s missile test launching. It was announced by Russian strategic missile forces commander Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev on November 3. He said only that it was the first test launching of its kind since 1993, and that it had involved a short-range interceptor rocket, one that would be used to equip the antiballistic missile system built around Moscow. Another of Yakovlev’s remarks–that the test proved Moscow’s ability to prolong the life of the antimissile rocket to more than twelve years–suggested that the missile tested was an older one. The Moscow missile defense system, which was built in accordance with the ABM treaty, fields 100 antimissile rockets, including thirty-six SH-11 Gorgons and sixty-four shorter-range SH-08 Gazelles.

Yakovlev also said on November 3 that the test launching should be seen in the context of possible Russian responses to a U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty. On October 4 Yakovlev added that continued observance of the ABM treaty is crucial for START I and START II, and that if START II is not ratified and a proposed, follow-up START III is not concluded, then Russia is “free from any obligations” (AP, Reuters, November 3; Washington Post, November 4; Russian agencies, November 3-4).

Yakovlev’s remarks were clearly intended as yet another warning that Moscow will feel itself free of restrictions imposed by earlier strategic arms control agreements–including those prohibiting the deployment of missiles with multiple warheads–if Washington violates the ABM accord by deploying a national missile defense system. Russian military leaders have not made a convincing case for their ability to find the funding necessary to beef up their strategic forces in such an eventuality. But they have said that their proposed countermeasures will be a good deal cheaper than the costs posed by developing the U.S. missile defense system.

U.S. officials have characterized as “troubling” earlier remarks by Russian military leaders suggesting that Moscow might build up its nuclear forces if Washington violates the ABM treaty. A U.S. State Department official reacted similarly yesterday to the announcement of the Russian test launching. “We find it distressing,” he said, “that Russia is raising the specter of an arms competition when what we’re trying to do is work cooperatively with them to focus on rogue states” (Reuters, November 4).

In his own public comments on the Russian test, however, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen posed what appeared to be the more relevant question, which was what the Russians were trying to prove by their latest exercise. “It only proves they have an ABM system, which we do not,” Cohen said yesterday. “I’m not sure of the point they were trying to make.” The U.S. Defense Department, meanwhile, said yesterday that it had no confirmation the Russians had in fact conducted Tuesday’s missile test. “We have the public statements, and we are looking for evidence to back it up,” a spokesman said (UPI, Reuters, November 4).