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Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Helsinki: A Pyrrhic Victory?
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Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

At the Helsinki summit, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, despite deep differences over NATO expansion, agreed on arms control proposals intended to obtain the Russian Duma's ratification of START II. Despite the appearance of progress, however, it is unlikely that a nationalistic Duma and a conservative U.S. Senate will accept these measures.

Under START II Russia would have had to undertake an expensive buildup of new, single warhead strategic missiles to maintain nuclear parity with the United States. The Duma's concern about parity reflects not only the desire to maintain Russia's image as a nuclear superpower but also to counter any U.S. plans to deploy a nationwide ballistic missile defense system. These concerns have been severely exacerbated by the decision to expand NATO eastward, which is seen across the Russian political spectrum as an exclusionary and aggressive move directed against Russia.

The Helsinki solution is to initiate, as soon as START II enters into force, negotiations of a new START III agreement limiting both sides to 2,000 2,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads by the end of 2007. At this level, which reduces permitted deployments by 1,000 warheads below START II levels, Russia would no longer be faced with a strategic buildup it can ill afford. In addition, since START III may take some time to negotiate, the date for the final elimination of missile systems under START II would be extended for five years. Russia would not have to eliminate all 150 of its 10 warhead MIRVed SS 18s, now scheduled for destruction by the beginning of 2003, until the end of 2007. Thus, Russia would not have to address the problem of new strategic missile forces during the next decade while reductions are carried out. Moreover, Russia would be in a stronger position if it decided U.S. ballistic missile defense plans or future NATO expansion endangered its security.

Responding to the Duma's fear that the United States might seek to deploy a national missile defense system, Clinton reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the ABM Treaty. And, in a major policy shift, Yeltsin accepted the U.S. position on theater missile defenses (TMDs) which, except for space based kill vehicles, would allow any system designated as such provided only that it is not tested against targets traveling more than 5 kilometers per second (equivalent to a missile with a 3,500 kilometer range). Apparently, Yeltsin was persuaded that, if the Duma was given assurances on the sanctity of the ABM Treaty, coupled with the extension of the timing of the destruction of strategic offensive forces, it should be willing to accept a more permissive approach to the definition of TMD systems, which in turn would help persuade the Republican majority in the Senate to abandon efforts to repudiate the ABM Treaty.

On the central issue of NATO expansion, the presidents could only agree to disagree. Clinton rejected the notion of a formal charter between NATO and Russia, and Yeltsin was only able to get the promise of political commitments from the individual NATO leaders to as yet unspecified assurances. In the circumstances, Yeltsin saved the summit by separating the NATO impasse from arms control. But Russians were united in their indignation at the failure to respond to their concerns on this issue. The prospect of an expanding NATO, whose membership might include the Baltic states and even Ukraine, with the right to station Western forces and nuclear weapons on their territories, was looked upon as an egregious violation of understandings reached at the time of the unification of Germany and a serious threat to Russian security.

In these circumstances, it seems most unlikely that the Duma will move quickly to ratify the amended START II despite its favorable modifications from the Duma's perspective, or to agree to the new permissive definition of TMD systems, despite Clinton's reaffirmation of the ABM Treaty. Prospects for the package appear equally unpromising in the U.S. Senate. Republican leaders have already denounced the Helsinki TMD demarcation accord as unacceptable because it would not allow space based interceptor systems. The five year delay in eliminating the Russian SS 18 force, the principal accomplishment of START II, will also not receive an enthusiastic reception.

If Clinton and Yeltsin can persuade their legislatures to support this package in the face of NATO expansion, the Helsinki summit will be remembered as a remarkable victory against considerable odds. But if reluctant legislatures in both countries fail to act, as seems quite likely, Helsinki will be seen as a Pyrrhic victory, where the successful rejection of Russian efforts to hold back NATO expansion created a new adversarial relationship between Russia and the West and set back arms control for many years.