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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Overcoming Obstacles

by Pavel Podvig

This paper was published in Izvestia, (October 29, 2001) in Russian. English version of the article was published in TheRussianIssues.Com

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President Vladimir Putin will be visiting the US in two weeks. The talks should clarify the question as to how the United States and Russia intend to put those new relations that everyone has been talking about recently into practice. The 1972 ABM Treaty occupies a special place among the problems that will determine the future shape of Russian-American relations.

The question concerning the future of the 1972 ABM Treaty has acquired such a strong symbolic significance that it is hard to talk about progress in bilateral relations if this question is not thrashed out. The situation has become even more complicated since the issue has become extremely politicized both here in Russia as well as in the United States.

In Russia, there seems to be a deeply rooted conviction that the ultimate objective of the American NMD program is to undermine Russia's nuclear potential. That is not all, however. This conviction has been supplemented as of late with expectations that the U.S. should almost give up the NMD idea as a "reward" for Russia's support of the anti-terrorist operation.

The U.S. insists, however, that the question of building a national missile defense (NMD) system has already been decided and that what should be discussed now is not whether to back out of the treaty or not, but how and when it should be done.

The September terrorist attacks did not "weaken" the NMD program. On the contrary, they gave it fresh impetus. The attacks demonstrated the possible consequences of a missile attack on the U.S., which could allegedly be repulsed by the anti-missile system that is now taking shape.

The possibilities for reaching a compromise are limited. Besides the traditional differences in views, the Russian president has taken quite a number of steps towards the U.S. during the past month and this, of course, has narrowed his maneuvering room.

At the July summit in Genoa, it seemed that America's consent to radically cut back offensive arms would compensate the concessions on the NMD question. Today, this may not be enough. Moreover, the reduction of American offensive arms may be quite far from radical.

And so, in order to attain a result that would be regarded as "successful" in Russia, Moscow must wangle out accords that would somehow regulate the question concerning the ABM Treaty's future. So far, Russia and the U.S. have been sidestepping this issue and are sticking to old cliches: "relic of the Cold War," on the one hand, and "cornerstone of strategic stability," on the other.

Is an agreement in November possible, and what will it look like?

Paradoxical as it may seem, the most probable outcome will be the preservation of the current state of uncertainty. Objectively, there is no real need to terminate the action of the treaty any time soon. The U.S. holds that the treaty is slowing down the testing program. However, that is not quite the case.

For the next few years at least, the U.S. will not be ready to begin tests that could seriously violate the treaty. Moreover, the U.S. claims that the construction of a proving ground in Alaska is compelling it to back out of the treaty. However, such claims do not hold water. The treaty contains no provisos prohibiting the construction of such a proving ground. What is more, the Russian side has no intentions of questioning America's right to build it.

It is difficult to say what Russia stands to gain from the latest delay in resolving this question. On one hand, the preservation of the treaty as a whole is doubtlessly regarded as a positive step. On the other hand, the question will remain unsolved and this will "poison" relations between Russia and the U.S. The "political capital" that the Bush administration has put into the idea of building the NMD system is so great that it will most probably not give up the idea of backing out of the treaty.

Another outcome of the November meeting of the two presidents could be an agreement to change some of the statutes in the treaty. Such a decision is seen as "the lesser of the two evils": this would eliminate the constant threat of America's unilateral withdrawal from the treaty and avert those negative consequences that could result from such a withdrawal.

However, one must fully realize that the price that will have to be paid for such a decision is that the treaty will turn become merely symbolic because any changes that will allow America to deploy an NMD system will affect the key statutes in the treaty. Compared to the alternative result, totally wrecking the treaty by unilateral departure, such a price does not seem to be excessive.

Judging by circumstances, it is these considerations that have prompted a "softening" in the Russian stance that has been observed in recent months.

It looks as if Moscow is getting ready to agree to treaty modifications, which could become part of much broader accords. More than that, the Russian side has been rebuking the U.S. for its sluggishness in defining the parameters of its future NMD system, and because of that, the development of amendments to the treaty is being delayed.

Objectively, the United States should be interested in coming to terms with Russia. However, there is practically no hope that such accords will be worked out in November.

The main reason for this is seen in the stand the U.S. administration has taken. It openly declares that the variant with amendments as suggested by Russia (providing for the number of deployment sites and interceptors) does not suit it in any way. Such amendments would supposedly limit the freedom of choice for the shape of the future system.

Neither does Russia's stance facilitate the quest for a mutually acceptable solution. And what is more, this stance is highly inconsistent. For instance, if the decision on concessions is made, then why insist on preserving limitations on the number of sites or interceptors? Such limitations will not allow the two sides to reach a compromise and are devoid of any practical sense.

It should also not be ruled out that Moscow is still confident that it can think up amendments that will not affect the fundamentals of the treaty. This makes the task of reaching a compromise even more illusory.

The difficulties in hammering out amendments mutually acceptable to both sides are indeed great but not insurmountable. For example, since the amendments will wreck the basis of the treaty anyway, it will become possible to jettison the majority of limitations and retain the main one - a ban on the deployment of an NMD system that could ensure protection from a massive missile strike.

What is more, there is the possibility of providing for confidence-building measures and exchanges of information. This, of course, would allow Russia and the U.S. to have a better understanding of the scope of work and judge the possibilities of such systems. In addition, the exchange of information could significantly contribute to forming a new system of relations between Russia and the U.S.

In speaking about new Russian-American relations, one should not totally rule out the possibility that Russia, in one form or another, may agree to the termination of the treaty in exchange for America's proposal to participate in building some kind of joint anti-missile system.

European countries could also participate in such a project, while the system itself could be non-strategic, at least, in the initial stages. Such a solution would most certainly be received positively in Russia because this would create the impression of a political breakthrough and that the two countries were truly switching over to a partnership.

The participation of Russian enterprises in the American program with the prospect of exchanging technology and landing contracts for designing projects would be seen as an acceptable price for the steps that Russia has recently taken towards meeting America halfway.

To be sure, the question concerning the future of the 1972 ABM Treaty will be examined together with other questions connected to Russian-American relations. This, of course, extends the framework of a compromise. However, in one way or another, the two sides will have to make their choice in respect to the treaty.

One would like to hope that the two countries will manage to avoid making mistakes and that in November the two presidents will be able to find a solution will become a component part of the new Russian-American relations, rather than an obstacle in the way of their further development.

© Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2000

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