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I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb.

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College (Takoma Park, Maryland)
July 1, 2020
Administration, Congress Continue Debate Over Membership, Future of ABM Treaty

May 1998

By Craig Cerniello

During the past year, a dispute has been quietly simmering between the Clinton administration and Congress over the issue of which states are currently parties to the ABM Treaty pending entry into force of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on succession, an agreement signed in September 1997 that defines Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine as the successor states to the former Soviet Union under the treaty. (See ACT, September 1997.) In a May 21 letter to House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), President Clinton stated that the United States and Russia are "clearly" parties to the ABM Treaty today and that "a strong case can be made" that Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are also parties to the treaty "even without the MOU."

The Clinton letter is likely to draw a sharp response from certain conservative Republicans, who maintain that if the Senate can defeat the MOU on succession then the ABM Treaty will become null and void. Senator Helms plans to conduct hearings on the ABM Treaty in the coming weeks, during which the MOU is certain to be strongly challenged. The Clinton administration has stated that once Russia ratifies START II, it will submit the MOU on succession (along with the START II extension protocol and the ABM-TMD "demarcation" agreements) to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification. The outcome of this debate has the potential to shape the future of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agenda.

 

The Exchange of Letters

In a June 16, 1997 letter to Clinton, Gilman posed a series of questions concerning the status of the ABM Treaty and the administration's efforts to include Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine as treaty partners. Most significant, Gilman asked what countries in addition to the United States were parties to the ABM Treaty and what countries would be parties to the treaty in the event that the Senate either failed to act on or rejected the MOU on succession.

Clinton explained the rationale for the MOU in his November 21, 1997 response to Gilman. Clinton stated that, in light of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became necessary to determine which of the former Soviet republics would collectively assume the rights and obligations of the former Soviet Union under the ABM Treaty. In making this determination, he said a key U.S. objective has been to "preserve the substance of the original treaty regime as closely as possible." To this end, Clinton noted that the MOU on succession collectively limits Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to the terms of the ABM Treaty: no more than 100 ABM interceptors at a single site.

Moreover, Clinton pointed out that ABM Treaty membership was an important issue for certain key successor states of the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. If the United States did not include these successor states into various arms control agreements (such as the START, INF and ABM treaties), "it is unlikely that we would have achieved the kind of comprehensive resolution of issues related to the disposition of strategic assets that has been achieved," he said.

 

Non-Russian Facilities

Clinton also stated that Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine each have ABM-related facilities on their territory and have participated in the sessions of the Geneva-based Standing Consultative Commission (SCC), where issues pertaining to the implementation of the ABM Treaty are regularly discussed. He said the eight other former Soviet republics were informed of these SCC meetings but did not participate, and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova indicated that they were not interested in joining the treaty.

In closing his initial letter to Gilman, Clinton argued that the New York package of START and ABM agreements will bolster U.S. national security. "If, however, the Senate were to fail to act or to disagree and disapprove the agreements, succession arrangements will simply remain unsettled. The ABM Treaty itself would clearly remain in force," he said.

Clinton's letter, however, did not satisfy congressional critics. In their March 3 response, Gilman and Helms returned to the basic issue of which states are currently parties to the ABM Treaty. They said Clinton's position appears to be that "Until an agreement on succession to the ABM Treaty comes into force, the identity of the other party or parties to the ABM Treaty is 'unsettled'." Gilman and Helms argued that this position is unacceptable. "If it is unclear as a matter of law whether Russia or any other country that emerged from the Soviet Union is today bound by the ABM Treaty, then it also should be unclear whether the United States is so bound," they stated.

In closing their letter, Gilman and Helms asked the Clinton administration to clearly identify the other states that are currently party to the ABM Treaty. "In the absence of such clarification, we will have no choice but to conclude that the ABM Treaty has lapsed until such time as the Senate approves a succession agreement reviving the Treaty," they said.

 

Administration Position

Clinton attempted to address these concerns in his May 21 response. He stated that the United States and Russia are "clearly" parties to the ABM Treaty and that "a strong case can be made" that Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are also parties to the treaty, regardless of the MOU on succession. Citing many of the same points made in his previous letter, Clinton argued that Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine each have ABM facilities on their territory, each have participated in the sessions of the SCC and each have expressed an interest in assuming the rights and obligations of the former Soviet Union under the ABM Treaty.

Finally, Clinton emphasized that "there is no question that the ABM Treaty has continued in force and will continue in force even if the MOU is not ratified." He said entry into force of the MOU is important, however, because it will resolve the uncertainty associated with which states other than Russia are parties to the treaty. "Equally important, maintaining the viability of the ABM Treaty is key to further reductions in strategic offensive forces under START II and START III," he concluded.