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Interview: William Cohen, US Secretary of Defense

by Bryan Bender, Washington Bureau Chief
September 22, 1999
Jane’s Defence Weekly

The first official talks between US Defense Secretary William Cohen and his Russian counterpart since the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia indicate relations between the two countries have warmed considerably.

Cohen believes, however, that prospects for significant progress on US-Russian strategic arms control issues remain dim, at least until after both countries' respective national elections next year. "I didn't expect any major breakthroughs," Cohen says. "It's going to take a little time. They have their elections coming up and so do we. Their focus in the near term may not be on this."

During talks with Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev, Cohen lobbied primarily for modifications to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that would enable the USA to deploy a treaty-compliant, limited National Missile Defense (NMD) system. He also held preliminary negotiations on a third Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START III, between the world's two largest nuclear powers to reduce the number of strategic warheads to between 2,000 and 2,500.

Cohen says the atmosphere surrounding US-Russian relations has improved considerably since earlier this year. "I thought overall it was in a very positive spirit. There was an atmosphere of congeniality that was pronounced. There was definitely a change in mood. I'm more optimistic than pessimistic. I think we can persuade them."

Russia has agreed to reinstate reciprocal visits of the US and Russian commanders of strategic forces and the creation of a joint early warning centre to guard against potential year 2000 problems in early warning systems, something Cohen hopes will become permanent. "They talked about the importance of Nunn-Lugar and the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme in which the US provides funding to demilitarise nuclear weapons and facilities. I'm encouraged," Cohen says.

Despite the increasing instability within the Russian government and reports that corruption may threaten the resolution of such strategic issues, Cohen says: "I don't think our military-to-military relations are affected."

On ABM in particular, he says he laid out the rationale for developing an NMD system. "I told them we have an obligation to provide a defence for our nation against the leakage and proliferation [of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems] that requires addressing. We're contemplating a limited system to protect the 50 states; one that does not undercut the Russian nuclear deterrent. And the level of protection could change depending on the threat. I spelled that out in advance so they know what our end goal is.

"As I anticipated, the discussion about ABM was not enthusiastically embraced," Cohen adds. "The Russians believe ABM is an important stability factor. They are concerned any [NMD] system might undercut their strategic system. I assured them we have a limited one in mind under the umbrella of ABM."

Cohen says he argued that modifications to the ABM treaty are also in Moscow's interest given the rise of terrorism in Russia, which could result in limited missile threats to Russian territory in the future. "Terrorism is coming to Russia as well. The capability is there with [rogue] intercontinental ballistic missiles that they will have to face."

While in Russia the defence secretary also broached the issue of tactical nuclear weapons, which is not covered under START but which the USA decided unilaterally to reduce dramatically. "We would like them to respond voluntarily on tactical nuclear weapons," he says. "They have 10 to 12 times more than we do."

With its deteriorating conventional forces, Cohen is increasingly concerned by Moscow's rhetoric indicating its tactical nuclear weapons have become a key component of the Russian deterrent. "There is more and more rhetoric that they can resort to the tactical weapons. The more that gets repeated, the more it becomes part of their doctrine and lowers the threshold for other countries," Cohen says.

On the potential for the USA and Russia "de-alerting" their nuclear forces as a stability-building measure, Cohen says such a proposal is now off the table. "The better course is reduction, limiting the number of weapons and establishing shared early warning centres."

In the interview, Cohen also addressed the prospects for further NATO expansion ­ a significant point of contention with Russia, which sees the extension of the Western military alliance as a threat.

The conflict in Kosovo "doesn't change the timetable" for further NATO enlargement, Cohen says. "NATO has decided not to continue enlarging until 2002. In the meantime we hope to intensify the Partnership for Peace [programme] and prepare those countries seeking membership." He says a lot depends on how the three new members will perform in meeting the alliance's modernisation and professional standards.

Cohen is also focusing on trying to alleviate recent tensions between China and Taiwan. "What we have tried to do is get both sides to lower the rhetoric," he said. "I have not talked to [US President Bill Clinton since his recent meeting with Chinese Premier Juang Zemin] but there is some indication of a possibility of renewing our military-to-military relations. It put us in a better position to lower tensions and get a resolution peacefully."

© Copyright Jane’s Group, 1999

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