Top U.S. and Russian officials accentuated the positive after a recent high-level meeting, but the two sides remain deeply divided on developing anti-missile systems and managing their future nuclear weapons relationship.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to Moscow to meet with their respective Russian counterparts March 17 and 18, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor and the president-elect. The trip was the second of the “two plus two” talks agreed to last July by Putin and President George W. Bush as a channel for their governments to discuss security issues. The inaugural meeting occurred last October in Moscow. (See ACT, November 2007 .)
Rice explained to reporters March 17 that she and Gates took the atypical step of visiting Moscow for a second straight time instead of hosting a reciprocal visit by their Russian counterparts because of “the hope that we will be able to move on a number of issues.” The trip stemmed from a March 7 phone call between Putin and Bush, who subsequently sent Putin a letter touching on a raft of issues. Putin described the letter as a “serious document.”
Despite descriptions by both sides of the two-day visit as “fruitful” and “productive,” the two countries did not reach any agreements on what have been two of the most divisive issues: missile defenses and future strategic nuclear arms limits. Nonetheless, Bush plans to meet Putin in Sochi, Russia a couple of days after both leaders attend an April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania. National security advisor Stephen Hadley March 26 informed reporters of the short-notice trip and described it as a chance to “identify areas of cooperation [and] resolve some outstanding issues so that the relationship is in good shape to be handed over to their two respective successors.”
The U.S. plan to deploy 10 long-range ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic has been the greatest irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship over the past year. The United States claims the systems are intended to protect against a growing Iranian missile threat, but Russia alleges that Russian missiles could be the target. As Gates acknowledged March 17, “The Russians hate the idea of missile defense.”
Gates and Rice sought to soften Moscow’s opposition by reaffirming and fleshing out some previous U.S. proposals intended to reassure Russia that Iran is the true target of the anti-missile systems. For instance, Gates suggested the United States could refrain from activating the proposed systems until Iran conducts longer-range missile flight tests. He also volunteered Washington’s readiness to “negotiate limits” on the anti-missile systems to alleviate Russian fears of a “breakout,” meaning a significant increase in U.S. capabilities that could be used against Russia.
The proposals apparently were very similar to those initially discussed last October, on which Russia later accused the United States of reneging. (See ACT, January/February 2008 .) Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both downplayed that incident.
Still, Russia requested the United States provide its latest proposals in writing so they could be studied more thoroughly, and Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov reiterated that “our positions have not changed.” Indeed, Lavrov remarked that the “best way” for the United States to address Russian concerns would be to abandon its plan.
Another point of contention is what should be done about the scheduled Dec. 5, 2009, expiration of the 1991 START accord. Although that treaty’s nuclear weapons reductions were completed several years ago, the accord’s extensive verification regime is still used by each of the countries to keep tabs on the other’s strategic nuclear forces, including compliance with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which lacks verification measures. That accord commits the United States and Russia to lower their operationally deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 warheads apiece by Dec. 31, 2012, which also happens to be the day the limit expires. (See ACT, June 2002 .)
Russia wants to negotiate new warhead limits lower than those mandated by SORT, as well as restrictions on strategic delivery vehicles. The Kremlin also wants the continuation of some legally binding verification measures.
Although initially resistant to negotiating any new legally binding instrument, including continuation of START verification provisions, the Bush administration relented last October to that possibility. But the administration remains opposed to codifying new arms limits. Rice argued March 17 that the current U.S.-Russian relationship does not require “the kind of highly articulated, expensive limitations and verification procedures that attended the strategic arms relationship with the Soviet Union.”
Although unable to resolve their major disputes, the two sides vowed to continue work initiated last year on a “strategic framework document,” which Rice said would “record all of the elements of the U.S.-Russia relationship.” She cited as key examples joint projects to combat nuclear terrorism and provide nuclear fuel assurances to states forgoing uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities that can be used to make nuclear bombs.
Ambassador Jackie Wolcott, a former U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, will be responsible for advancing many of those projects in her new role as special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation. The Department of State announced her appointment March 14 and indicated her duties entail implementing the measures endorsed last July by Putin and Bush to promote nuclear energy worldwide and reduce proliferation dangers. Press reports indicate that one of the measures that may be signed during the trip is a nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries that Putin and Bush initialed in July 2007, but have yet to sign, in part because of U.S. dissatisfaction with Russia’s policies toward Iran.