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US bid to alter arms treaty alarms Russia's military

by Jonathan Steele in Moscow
Saturday September 11, 1999
The Guardian

As the US stepped up its attempts to get President Boris Yeltsin to agree to amendments to its anti-ballistic missile agreement with Moscow, the Russian military this week has been sending clear signs it considers the move unacceptable.

While Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, left Moscow on Thursday declaring he was "satisfied" with disarmament talks, it is clear that there is now a greater threat of nuclear escalation than at any time since the cold war ended a decade ago.

The US wants Moscow to accept an American exemption from part of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty of 1972, and to that end the Clinton administration has begun to pile pressure on Mr Yeltsin's beleaguered regime.

Mr Clinton's hour-long phone call with Mr Yeltsin on Wednesday was part of the plan, saying in effect "We will support you in spite of the money-laundering scandal, if you give us what we want on ABM".

Next week, William Cohen, the US defence secretary, visits the Russian capital in the hope of brow-beating the Russian military. Further pressure will be applied when Mr Clinton meets Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, at an Asia-Pacific summit next week.

But the Russian military, along with politicians from a variety of parties, are not falling for the American blandishments, although there are fears that Mr Yeltsin may. "With the present weakness of the regime, there is a danger of unjustified concessions," Sergei Karaganov, director of the Council for Defence and Foreign Policy Studies, said.

Colonel-General Vladimir Yakovlev, the commander of Russia's strategic rocket forces, was quoted in Thursday's newspaper Izvestiya as saying that if the Americans abandoned the ABM treaty "Russia has worked out asymmetric measures, including the option of giving the intercontinental Topol-M missiles independently targetable warheads". These warheads were expressly forbidden by the Start-2 treaty. It has never been ratified by the Russian parliament.

Timed to coincide with General Yakovlev's warning was an interview in another Russian paper with Yuri Solomonov, the head of the rocket team which is making the Topol-M.

"We have a number of technical options for breaking through the prospective American ABM system," he said. "These include making the missile manoeuvrable during the active part of its flight."

Beyond mere words, the air force literally fired a shot across Mr Talbott's bows. Four days before he reached Moscow, it launched the latest Topol-M model, hitting its target in the Russian Far East "with a high degree of accuracy", General Yakovlev said.

Mr Talbott, as had other American officials before him, was trying to convince Moscow that its aim in "modifying" the ABM treaty was to build a national missile defence only against "rogue' states such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq. The US says the system is not intended to be sophisticated enough to be able to shoot Russian missiles down.

One proposal is to move the main battle-management radar system from North Dakota to Alaska. The ABM treaty forbids such radars from being sited on the edge of either signatory.

Pavel Podvig, Russia's top civilian expert on ABM systems, said this week that the Russian military feared the new system "could be the basis for a more robust missile defence scheme later". "The US could link this Alaska-based radar with just a few interceptor rockets for use against North Korea, but then quickly add hundreds of interceptors."

It takes five to 10 years to build a large phased-array radar installation, allowing time for the other side to build better missiles to counteract it, Mr Podvig explained. "If the US scheme goes ahead as though it is just a regional defence, then Russia loses the lead-time."

The Russian military was not, however, seriously worried that its missiles would lose their deterrent power, Mr Podvig said, since no ABM system could ever give the US a guarantee of hitting Russia without having to worry about successful retaliation. "The worry is partly finanical. It will force Russia to keep upgrading its missile systems.

"It is also conceptual. The ABM treaty helps to bring about a reduction in offensive weapons. As the Clinton administration used to say, it is the cornerstone of nuclear arms reduction."

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999

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See also: ABM Treaty Modification: Should Russia Agree?