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– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Russian Officials Continue to Oppose Changes to ABM Treaty

J. Peter Scoblic

U.S. ATTEMPTS TO renegotiate the ABM Treaty to allow for deployment of a limited national missile defense (NMD) system continued to meet with strong public and private opposition from top-level Russian political and military officials, whose concerns were echoed by Chinese and European leaders and formalized in a UN draft resolution urging the preservation of the treaty. The United States answered Russia's protests, which were punctuated with missile tests and suggestions of improved nuclear forces, by insisting that U.S. NMD efforts were not intended to threaten Russia's nuclear deterrent.

Despite Moscow's vehement public opposition to changing the treaty, the United States and Russia have been holding high-level talks on the ABM Treaty since mid-August. Most recently, Undersecretary of State John Holum met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Berdennikov in Moscow on October 21-22. According to reports published just before the meeting by The New York Times, the United States had offered to help Russia complete its missile-tracking radar site at Mishelevka, near the Siberian city of Irkutsk, in exchange for treaty amendments that would permit the U.S. to deploy a limited NMD system. But on October 21, State Department spokesman James Rubin said that the United States had made no formal offers to the Russians and that discussions on the treaty were still at "an early stage."

In proposing changes to the treaty, U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized that the planned NMD system is not designed to counter a Russian attack and would be easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of missiles in the Russian arsenal. "Nothing we have in mind to construct...would in any way jeopardize their strategic systems," Secretary of Defense William Cohen said November 4. U.S. officials have also tried to point out that the danger of "rogue nations" armed with ICBMs is one that affects both Russia and the United States. "We believe the Russians face a similar threat...and we have proposed a number of ways to cooperate with them in helping them meet that threat," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said in an October 26 press briefing.

But Russia continued to reject the notion that it could cooperate with the United States in amending the treaty. "We are not engaged in haggling with the Americans on the ABM Treaty," said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on October 28, and in the days that followed, Russian military officials repeatedly stated that Russia would easily be able to penetrate any missile defense erected by the United States. Nikolai Mihailov, Russia's first deputy defense minister, indicated that Russia was already considering ways to increase its strategic capabilities to compensate for a U.S. NMD system, including modifying its single-warhead Topol-M (also known as the SS-27) to carry multiple re-entry vehicles, a measure prohibited by START II, which Russia has signed but not yet ratified.

Russia then took its public opposition to treaty amendment a step further with a series of "combat readiness" exercises. On November 2, it launched a missile interceptor from the Sary-Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. The missile was part of Russia's A-135 system, which is deployed around Moscow as Russia's one missile defense permitted under the ABM Treaty. (The United States deployed its ABM system around an ICBM field in North Dakota but dismantled it in 1975.) Then, on November 18, a Russian nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea test-fired two ballistic missiles.

Russia's forceful posture was matched by increasingly firm U.S. rhetoric. In a November 5 speech to a Washington think tank, Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe said that if the Russians were not willing to negotiate, "the president would have to decide whether to withdraw from the ABM Treaty under the supreme national interest clause." "We will not permit any other country to have a veto on actions that may be needed for the defense of our nation," Slocombe said. The Clinton administration has said that it will make an NMD deployment decision in July 2000 based on four criteria: technological readiness, the maturity of the "rogue nation" ICBM threat, cost factors and arms control considerations.

Arms control experts continued to express concern that U.S. efforts to alter the ABM Treaty would have a devastating effect on the arms control regime, recently weakened by the Senate's October 13 rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Indeed, Russian officials have indicated that if the United States withdraws from the ABM Treaty, Russia will consider its obligations under the START agreements null and void. "If the ABM Treaty collapses, all achievements in the field of the limitation and reduction of nuclear weapons will be suspended," said Anatoly Anatov, a Russian envoy to the United Nations.

The international community also expressed its concern with U.S. plans to amend the ABM Treaty, formalizing its opposition on November 5 in a UN resolution co-sponsored by Russia, China and Belarus. The draft resolution, which called for the preservation and strengthening of the ABM Treaty as the "cornerstone for maintaining international peace and security and strategic stability," was adopted by the First Committee of the General Assembly by a vote of 54-4, with 73 abstentions. The United States, Israel, Latvia and Micronesia were the only states to vote against the resolution.

However, despite its public rhetoric, in late November Russia indicated a willingness to continue discussions. In an interview with Russian Public Television on November 19, Colonel-General Vladimir Yakovlev, commander of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, suggested that the United States and Russia set up a joint commission to assess the "rogue state" missile threat, according to Reuters. Then, in a press conference held in New York on November 22, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian ambassador to the UN, suggested that a U.S. missile defense against rogue states could be addressed within the "demarcation" agreements to the ABM Treaty that Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin signed in 1997, defining the limits on theater missile defense permitted under the treaty.