Yeltsin Government Shake-Up Unlikely to Affect Arms Control

March 1998

By Craig Cerniello

In late March, Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly dismissed his entire cabinet, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who had just participated in the latest round of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, commonly known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (GCC). Yeltsin chose Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Ministry of Fuel and Energy, as the new prime minister and indicated that he would retain Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev in the new government.

Earlier in the month, Yeltsin had replaced Viktor Mikhailov, head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), with Yevgeny Adamov, head of the Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering in Moscow. Despite these developments, both U.S. and Russian government officials have emphasized that there will be no significant changes in their bilateral relationship, including the implementation and observance of the arms control agreements that they have signed.

In his March 23 address to the nation, Yeltsin announced that he had signed a decree dismissing his entire cabinet and that Chernomyrdin would no longer be serving as prime minister. Although Yeltsin said he would temporarily assume Chernomyrdin's role, that same day he shifted this responsibility to Kiriyenko, who had also participated in the recent GCC talks. On March 24, Yeltsin specifically praised the work of Primakov and Sergeyev, two key players in the national security area. Yeltsin's press spokesman said this was an indication that he would like both officials to remain in the new government. Yeltsin formally nominated Kiriyenko as the new prime minister on March 27, subject to approval by the Russian parliament.

U.S. and Russian officials have stressed that they expect no major shift in their bilateral relationship, upon which rests their ambitious nuclear arms control agenda. Commenting on the shake-up, President Bill Clinton said he had "no reason to believe that anything different will occur in a way that's at all adverse to the partnership we've been building with Russia." In a March 23 statement, Vice President Al Gore said, "President Clinton and I will continue to work closely with the Russian government to build a peaceful and more stable world, support Russia's aspirations for reform and a prosperous and democratic future, and deepen our engagement with the people of Russia."

Russian government officials have provided similar assurances. In his address to the nation, Yeltsin said, "the resignation of the government does not mean a change in our political course. Itis an attempt to give the economic reforms more energy and efficiency." Speaking on Yeltsin's behalf, Primakov said March 24 that, "Russia's foreign policy will remain unchanged, and will not be affected by changes in the government."

Primakov also gave the clearest indication to date that the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agenda will not be adversely affected by the shake-up. In his March 24 press conference with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Germany, he said "[W]e will, of course, continue to move toward further cuts in strategic offensive arms, and it is for that reason that Russia's leadership views as highly important ratification by the Duma of the START II Treaty."

Furthermore, Primakov stated that the GCC, which meets twice a year to discuss a broad range of issues, including those related to nuclear arms control, "will continue its work" despite Chernomyrdin's departure. Albright highlighted both of these points—Russian reaffirmation of the START II ratification process and the importance of the GCC—in her remarks. "I also was very glad to hear a reiteration of what we had heard earlier that the START II ratification through the Duma is a process that is on track," she said.

With the Primakov-Sergeyev team remaining in the new government, the Yeltsin administration should continue to be in a strong position in its efforts to persuade the Duma to approve the controversial modifications to the ABM Treaty that were signed in New York last September. Both officials have been strong supporters of the START and ABM treaties and should be able to make the best possible case that the New York agreements enhance Russian security and make START II ratification possible. Other items on the nuclear arms control agenda—from ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the continued implementation of the "Nunn-Lugar" Cooperative Threat Reduction program—are also unlikely to be adversely affected by the shake-up.

On March 2, Viktor Mikhailov unexpectedly resigned as head of MINATOM in order to engage in "scientific activity." Two days later, Yeltsin appointed Yevgeny Adamov as Mikhailov's successor. According to press reports, Yeltsin instructed Adamov to ensure parity with the United States in nuclear weapons and said this parity "should be preserved even though the funds and means to achieve it might be reduced." Subsequently, Mikhailov emerged in the position of first deputy minister within MINATOM and chairman of its scientific council.

The initial judgment of some informed observers was that with Mikhailov's resignation, U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation may gain new momentum because Mikhailov had a reputation for being difficult to deal with on a variety of issues, such as the Russia-Iran nuclear reactor project. However, this initial optimism faded with the appointment of Adamov because he is a protege of Mikhailov and likely to continue the same policy agenda.

On balance, U.S. officials have indicated that they do not anticipate the MINATOM shake-up will generate any major changes in their dealings with Russia on nuclear security issues. "As far as whether this will change our cooperation in nuclear matters is concerned, given the strong presidential and vice presidential interest in this area. [W]e expect our dialogue and cooperative work on nuclear matters to continue without interruption," State Department spokesman James Rubin said in his March 3 briefing.

Gore and Chernomyrdin met in Washington March 10-11 for the 10th session of the GCC. Although no new agreements were signed on the nuclear front, the sides discussed issues related to the implementation of the highly enriched uranium (HEU) purchase agreement; the Department of Energy's material protection, control and accounting (MPC&A) program; the plutonium production reactor agreement signed last September; and the disposition of weapons-grade plutonium no longer needed for military purposes. They also discussed the possibility of establishing a new committee on nuclear affairs within the GCC framework.