U.S., Russia Swap Arms Ideas

Wade Boese

Senior U.S. officials recently offered proposals to their Russian counterparts to ease escalating bilateral tensions, particularly on U.S. plans to base strategic anti-missile interceptors in Europe. The Kremlin said it would study the offers but indicated they were inadequate. Russia’s government also warned it might leave a bilateral treaty limiting certain classes of missiles if other countries remained free to acquire the proscribed weapons.

In July, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin had agreed to pursue high-level talks on a raft of arms issues dividing their countries. Carrying out that charge, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled Oct. 12 to Moscow to meet with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov.

The discussions yielded no agreements, except that the two sides will meet again in six months at the same high level and work on a “strategic framework” aimed at tackling all of their ongoing arms disputes. Differences include competing U.S. and Russian ideas for a successor arrangement to the expiring 1991 START nuclear reductions accord, Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, and quarrels over a treaty restricting the amount and location of major conventional weapons, such as battle tanks, stationed in Europe.

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

At Russia’s urging, the quartet also added to the package the future of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Kremlin claims the accord, which forbids Washington and Moscow from possessing ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, disadvantages Russia vis-à-vis its neighbors, such as China, that lack the same constraints.

Before meeting with Rice and Gates, Putin said Oct. 12 that the INF Treaty should be made “global in scope.” Lavrov further spoke of the “universalization of the INF Treaty.” 

On Oct. 25 at the United Nations General Assembly, Russia and the United States issued a statement reaffirming their support for the INF Treaty and calling upon other governments to renounce and eliminate their ground-launched missiles with ranges banned by the accord. The statement declared U.S. and Russian intentions to “work with all interested countries” and “discuss the possibility of imparting a global character to this important regime.”

Missile Defense

The sharpest clash between Russia and the United States stems in part from missile developments by third countries. The Bush administration asserts its proposed deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic of 10 long-range ballistic missile interceptors and a radar to guide them is intended to counter Iran’s growing missile capabilities. Russia contends it is the system’s true target, asserting a long-range Iranian missile threat is at least 15 years away.

U.S. officials arrived in Moscow with proposals that they said would help relieve Russian angst. General concepts, they said, include stationing U.S. and Russian personnel at each other’s missile defense-related facilities and sites, increasing intelligence sharing, assessing missile threats jointly, and establishing a “joint regional missile defense architecture.” That architecture supposedly would link U.S., Russian, and European missile defense components. Gates later revealed to reporters that the United States also offered to possibly postpone activating the proposed system pending “definitive proof of the threat.” He noted Oct. 23 that “we have not fully developed this proposal.”

Lavrov and Serdyukov welcomed the U.S. proposals and said Russia would consider them. The two governments assigned their experts one immediate task: to devise common criteria for evaluating whether a missile threat exists. Lavrov remarked, “[I]f we succeed in hammering out these criteria, it will become clear that there is no need” for the U.S. system.

The two sides remain in a standoff over what should be the status of the U.S. deployment as they entertain each other’s proposals. Russia demands a halt to the effort, including ongoing U.S. negotiations with the two potential host countries.

Rice and Gates ruled out that possibility, claiming the evolving Iranian threat is dictating the pace of the plan. The Bush administration envisions installing the first missile interceptor as early as 2011, but lawmakers in pending legislation have cut or restricted funding for the project. The Pentagon warns such moves could delay the fielding of the system. U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran might acquire long-range ballistic missiles before 2015.

If Washington pushes ahead with its plan, Moscow warns all cooperation would be jeopardized, including Putin’s earlier proposal to share Russian radar data with the United States to assess Iran’s missile capabilities. (See ACT, July/August 2007. ) Putin stressed this point to Rice and Gates, saying “we could decide some day to put missile defense systems on the moon, but if we concentrate solely on carrying out our own plans, we could end up losing the opportunity for reaching an agreement.”

Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty

The disagreement over missile defense garnered most of their attention, but U.S. and Russian officials also touched on the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and START I. The two sides announced no progress on either issue, despite some reported recent U.S. initiatives regarding the conventional arms pact.

Russia is threatening to suspend implementation of the CFE Treaty Dec. 12 unless the United States and its NATO allies remedy several Russian concerns. (See ACT, July/August 2007. ) Moscow’s key grievance is that NATO countries have failed to ratify a 1999 adapted version of the treaty, which would relax some arms limits on Russia and open up the treaty regime to new members. This latter point is important to Moscow because NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia do not belong to the treaty and have no arms restrictions.

Led by the United States, NATO members have maintained they will not ratify the updated treaty until Russia completes military withdrawal commitments from Georgia and Moldova made in conjunction with the adapted treaty. In recent months, the United States reportedly has endorsed a more flexible course of allowing individual NATO members to start some ratification steps, but not complete the process, to show goodwill to Russia.

Washington and other Western capitals also have reaffirmed offers to support replacing Russian forces in Moldova with international peacekeepers. Moscow contends such an approach would be unacceptable to the ethnic Russian population where Russian troops currently reside.

Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, stated Oct. 5 that the United States wanted to “work as fast as possible so that the Russians don’t suspend their obligations.” Although stating that U.S. proposals represented “a step to the right direction,” Lavrov Oct. 12 proclaimed them “insufficient.”


Lavrov further noted that the two governments “haven’t finalized…work” on what will follow START, which is scheduled to expire Dec. 5, 2009. The treaty required Washington and Moscow to cut their deployed strategic nuclear warhead levels from more than 10,000 each to fewer than 6,000 apiece. Neither country supports exercising the treaty’s five-year extension option, but both want to maintain certain treaty elements, such as some inspection and data exchange measures.

Russia favors codifying those provisions in a legally binding accord with new warhead and delivery-vehicle limits. The Bush administration does not, arguing such agreements are no longer needed because the Cold War arms race is in the past. (See ACT, July/August 2007. )

Some lawmakers, including a leading Republican voice on U.S. relations with Russia, are urging the administration to rethink its position. Speaking Oct. 8, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the foreign relations panel, said he was “hopeful the administration will ultimately abandon anxieties about legally binding commitments.” Lugar contended treaties “reduce the chances of misinterpretation, miscalculation, and error.” He added, “[T]he current Russian-American relationship is complicated enough without introducing greater elements of uncertainty into the nuclear relationship.”