Crossing the 'Finnish' Line

January/February 1997 

Jack Mendelsohn

The U.S. Russian arms control agenda is in serious trouble. START II is under attack in the Russian Duma, the two governments have been unable to agree on the terms under which highly capable theater missile defense (TMD) systems may be deployed, and most of the Russian political and military elites remain implacably hostile to the idea of NATO expansion.

The upcoming March 20 21 summit meeting in Helsinki could break the current impasse, however, if Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin can agree on a joint declaration committing the two countries to a bold arms control package. If they fail to seize this opportunity, the prospects are dim for an improved U.S. Russian security relationship and for progress in arms control.

The key element of this declaration should be an explicit commitment to a "framework" for a START III agreement with a lower ceiling on deployed warheads (between 2,000 and 2,500). The negotiations for these deeper reductions would begin immediately after the Duma ratifies START II. This commitment would help ease understandable Russian concerns over the restructuring, budgetary and scheduling demands of the existing START accords.

As important as a commitment to further reductions may be, it will not be sufficient by itself to induce the Duma to ratify START II. Moscow also links ratification to the continued viability of the ABM Treaty and has been critical of the pressure in the U.S. Congress for a national missile defense (NMD) system and of the plans by the Clinton administration for the large scale deployment of highly capable TMD systems. To help the Duma over the ballistic missile defense hurdle, the START III framework could call for a new reduction schedule that would extend START II implementation by two or more years beyond 2003.

As currently conceived, the administration's NMD "3 plus 3" program would hold off actual deployments until 2003 or later. Plans for Theater High Altitude Area Defense deployment—which the Russians seem to have agreed would be ABM Treaty compliant if not linked to space based sensors for tracking and guidance—call for the first unit to be in the field by 2004. If the START II implementation schedule were extended to 2006, for example, Russia would have additional time to assess the impact of proposed missile defenses on its strategic nuclear forces before the completion of its reductions.

Perhaps the most serious roadblock to START II ratification is NATO's decision to expand eastward. Whatever the Western arguments in favor of expansion may be, enlarging NATO at a time when Russia is politically and militarily weak risks energizing precisely those forces in Russian domestic politics—the conservatives, the nationalists, the communists and the militarists—who are most hostile to reform in Russia and to the West in general. If these forces gain political strength, they will inevitably turn Russia away from a cooperative relationship with the United States and into a reluctant, if not intractable, arms control partner.

Moscow's principal military objection to NATO expansion has been the possibility the alliance might deploy additional troops and/or tactical nuclear weapons on the territories of its new Central European members. To address Russian concerns regarding the potential deployment of NATO ground forces in the new member states, the alliance recently put forward an excellent proposal to limit to current national entitlements all national and stationed ground equipment in those states likely to join NATO.

To deal with the sensitive issue of tactical nuclear weapons, the summit declaration should initiate a separate negotiation on the disposition of these weapons. As a first step, the United States and Russia could freeze the numbers and location of all tactical nuclear weapons, alleviating Russian concerns about their forward deployment. As a mid term goal, this forum could seek to remove all tactical nuclear weapons from the operational forces of both sides either under a treaty, as in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or through reciprocal unilateral commitments, as undertaken by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in late 1991. This would address U.S. concerns about the safety and security of large numbers of tactical nuclear weapons in Russia.

Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin have a historic opportunity awaiting them in Helsinki. If the two leaders can make progress on a political settlement to accompany NATO expansion and agree on the next steps in bilateral arms control, the summit will get U.S. Russian relations back on track and START II across the "Finnish" line. If they fail, a "cold peace" may indeed be upon us.