"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Eau de Cologne

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

Taking advantage of the fortuitously timed G-8 summit in Cologne, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin made a concerted effort to put the bitter U.S.-Russian confrontation over Kosovo behind them with the promise of renewed progress on the stalled strategic arms control agenda. Whether they have the will and ability to translate the encouraging rhetoric into action during the limited time available to both of them remains to be seen.

In their joint statement, the presidents committed their governments to "do everything in their power to facilitate the successful completion of the START II ratification process in both countries." They also reaffirmed their commitment to the ABM Treaty, which they recognized as a "cornerstone of strategic stability" that is of "fundamental importance" in achieving further reductions in strategic offensive arms. And, in reaffirming their commitment to their joint Helsinki statement of March 1997, they agreed to begin later this summer "discussions" on both further nuclear reductions under a START III agreement and "possible proposals for increasing the viability of the [ABM] Treaty."

The presidents were right in emphasizing the critical importance of START II ratification. Although conventional wisdom now holds that there is little chance that the Duma will act on the treaty in the foreseeable future, the Duma was prepared twice in the past six months to act favorably on ratification. The votes were aborted, however, by the pre-Christmas bombing of Baghdad and the pre-Easter bombing of Yugoslavia, which the overwhelming majority of Duma members and their constituents considered unacceptable actions reflecting U.S. disregard for Russian views. If the United States really attaches high priority to START II ratification, it can influence its prospects by acts designed to gain Duma support, such as increasing financial support, eschewing further expansion of NATO and, above all, avoiding actions perceived as deliberately hostile to Russian interests.

The net impact of the decision to initiate "discussions" on START III and the ABM Treaty is hard to predict. Discussions on START III, with its lower ceilings on forces, should help START II ratification by responding to Duma concerns about START II force levels that would require expensive modernization efforts by Moscow. But the fact that the discussions will apparently include measures to improve transparency and ensure the irreversibility of the reduction process—while excellent arms control measures—will require protracted negotiations, probably delaying any agreement until the next administration and thereby reducing the favorable impact on early ratification of START II.

The discussion of U.S. proposals to amend the ABM Treaty, however, presents a much more difficult, and probably intractable, problem. Moves to relax the constraints of the ABM Treaty run exactly counter to the overarching objective of reducing the levels of strategic nuclear arsenals. While Russia is obligated by the treaty itself to listen to U.S. proposals to amend the treaty to make possible a limited U.S. national missile defense (NMD), Moscow continues to oppose any changes to the accord. Despite U.S. arguments about the need to maintain the "vitality" of the treaty in a world of emerging rogue nations, it will not be easy to convince Russia that North Korea presents a clear-and-present danger to the sole remaining superpower. Rather, it will be perceived by Russia as a first step to a more robust NMD system that would threaten the retaliatory capability of a reduced Russian strategic force, which is the stated objective of many NMD advocates.

Clinton has emphasized that no decision has been reached on NMD deployment and that any system "must be operationally effective, cost-effective and enhance our security." When making a deployment decision next June, Clinton stated that, in addition to reviewing flight tests, cost estimates and evaluation of the threat, progress in negotiating any necessary amendments to the ABM Treaty would be considered. As the architecture for a system capable, at least on paper, of effectively defending every square foot of all 50 states has not been determined, the Pentagon will undoubtedly press for maximum relaxation of treaty constraints. If Russia does not accept this approach, the architecture should be modified to provide a system consistent with the existing provisions of the ABM Treaty—even though the system might not cover the Aleutian and Hawaiian Islands. Or more rationally, the president should defer entirely a deployment decision since none of the criteria he has set will have been met by next summer.

The new joint statement has certainly served as welcome eau de Cologne to cover the foul state of U.S.-Russian relations after Kosovo. The resulting atmosphere could be the first step in an improved relationship. But daunting problems stand in the way of achieving the promise of the Cologne rhetoric. There is little hope that these barriers will be overcome unless Clinton and Yeltsin, despite domestic distractions, actually treat the problem as a highest national priority without any further delay.