U.S.-Russian Differences Remain On Missile Defenses, ABM Treaty

Wade Boese

Despite a flurry of summer meetings between top U.S. and Russian officials on offensive and defensive strategic forces, Moscow remains unconvinced by U.S. arguments to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which proscribes nationwide defenses against long-range ballistic missiles.

U.S. officials have tried unsuccessfully since May to sell Russia on the idea of developing a new bilateral strategic framework that would involve, among other things, scrapping the 1972 ABM Treaty, building strategic missile defenses, and lowering offensive nuclear force levels. President George W. Bush first articulated the proposal in a May 1 speech and discussed it with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their first meeting in June. But Moscow has continued to support maintaining the ABM Treaty, though over the past few months it has hinted that it would consider amending the accord.

Meeting July 22 in Genoa, Italy, on the sidelines of the G-8 summit, Bush again lobbied Putin to back his new strategic framework. Putin demurred, but the presidents issued a joint statement saying their countries would “begin intensive consultations on the interrelated subjects of offensive and defensive systems.” At a post-meeting press conference, Putin said the two matters would be discussed as a “set,” and Bush said, “The two go hand-in-hand.”

Nonetheless, there was confusion about what had been agreed. Later that day, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice insisted that the presidents had not agreed to link the issues of offense and defense formally and that Washington would go it alone if Russia refused to work with the United States.

Rice traveled to Moscow a few days later to craft a timetable for continuing the talks and to discuss the strategic framework proposal further with the Kremlin. Although she left Russia with a schedule for consultations, Rice made no headway in getting Russian leaders to accept the U.S. proposal. “We did not hear from Mrs. Rice any new arguments to cause us to review our fundamental approach to the 1972 treaty,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said July 27.

An August 13 visit to Moscow by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yielded similar results. When asked whether Rumsfeld had persuaded him that the ABM Treaty had outlived its usefulness, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov answered, “I’m afraid not.” Later that day, Ivanov stated, “We feel no compunction to leave one or any other treaty or accord which we currently have signed.”

Throughout these high-level talks and after August meetings of government experts in Washington and Moscow, Russia repeatedly said that it had not received enough detailed information about U.S. plans. Putin, who also met with Rumsfeld August 13, said Moscow wants to be told of the “military and technical parameters of the [missile defense] proposals” and to know how low the United States would be willing to reduce its nuclear forces, along what timeframe, and how such reductions would be verified.

Washington says that it cannot yet answer these questions, asserting that future missile defense deployments will be based on what technologies pan out during research and testing and that the Pentagon is still conducting a review of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Rumsfeld, however, told various Moscow audiences that he should know the future size of U.S. nuclear forces within the next couple of months.

Russia and the United States are currently implementing START I, which caps each country’s arsenal at 6,000 deployed strategic warheads. START II, which has not yet entered into force, would lower this cap to 3,500 warheads. Although the two countries agreed in March 1997 to pursue an additional follow-on treaty, START III, that would reduce their arsenals to no more than 2,500 strategic warheads each, Russia has since proposed going down to 1,500 warheads. The Bush administration, however, has not yet indicated whether it would go as low as or below the proposed START III numbers.

Russia appears to favor codifying in a formal document any agreements it reaches with the United States. On August 13, Ivanov declared a need for “a system of controllable restraints” and “a series of limits.” But Washington has said it is not seeking a formal agreement on offenses or defenses. A senior defense official explained August 10 to reporters, “We are not seeking a Cold War-style arms control negotiation or treaty in these talks.”

Part of the administration’s rationale is that it does not have time for such an approach because its ballistic missile defense testing program will “bump up against” the ABM Treaty within months. Pentagon plans call for starting construction in April 2002 on a new Alaskan missile defense test site, which officials also claim will be available for operational use in an emergency. “Time is of the essence,” Bush emphasized July 23.

Claiming it does not want to violate the treaty or slow its testing program, the Bush administration states it would like to reach an agreement soon with Russia to mutually withdraw from the treaty, but failing that outcome, Washington warns it will withdraw unilaterally. Six months’ notice is required to withdraw from the ABM Treaty.

Responding August 22 to news stories that the United States had set out a November deadline for concluding the talks—six months before the April construction date—at the Moscow meeting of experts, a State Department spokesperson stated, “There is no deadline.” The next day, Bush also denied any deadlines had been set but left no doubt about U.S. plans, declaring, “We will withdraw from the ABM Treaty on our timetable at a time convenient to America.” He added that Putin is “aware of [U.S.] desires to move beyond the ABM Treaty and we will.”

Russian officials are skeptical of Washington’s abbreviated timeframe. “I don’t see any possible way that we can take something that complicated and do it only in a couple of months,” Ivanov said after meeting with Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell are expected to meet with their Russian counterparts again in September to continue the talks. The two presidents will also meet in October in Shanghai, China, and again in November at Bush’s Texas ranch. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, who led the U.S. expert group in Moscow, said August 21 that he believed “the two presidents would be disappointed in us if we didn’t have something for them to consider when they get together in Texas.”