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ABM Treaty Modification: Should Russia Agree?

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Updated July 17, 2000

Ballistic Missile Defenses

Over the last decade, the U.S. conducted several steps aimed at collapsing the ABM Treaty, which is considered as a cornerstone of strategic stability. As a result of U.S. initiatives the Joint U.S.- Russian Statement On A Global Protection System (1992) and the Joint Statement Concerning The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1997) were signed.

However, the most wide scale attack on the ABM Treaty has been conducted since January 1999, when the officials of President Clinton's administration, previously opposing to "BMD hawks", unequivocally pledged for support of development and deployment of a national missile defense system prohibited by existing ABM treaty. In particular, Secretary of Defense William Cohen said the administration intends to open negotiations with Moscow on ways of amending the treaty to allow the United States to deploy missile defenses now in development. However, if the Russians refused to amend the treaty, he made clear: "...Then we have the option of our national interest indicating we would simply pull out of the treaty..." Also in January, 1999 President Bill Clinton wrote to Russian President Boris Yeltsin outlining his plans to develop and test a national missile defense system. Russian President's administration indicated, that the U.S. proposals were being studied. However, the reaction of Igor Ivanov, Foreign Minister and Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, Head of the Defense Ministry's Main Department for Military Cooperation, was sharp and very negative.

The decisive factor in change of the U.S. administration's position on development of ballistic missile defenses was played by the U.S. Congress. The Congress approved the Cochran-Inouye bill on May 20, 1999, which states: "It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)." The bill entered into force in July 1999.

On June 20, 1999 Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin have agreed in Cologne to resume discussions on START III and on the ABM Treaty in the fall. Thus, for the first time the Russians have agreed to discuss changes in the ABM Treaty. The Clinton administration hopes to have an agreement with Russia by next June on modification.

In September 1999, plans of Clinton administration on treaty modification were clarified. President Clinton has decided to ask Russia to agree initially to relatively modest changes in the treaty. The first set of changes sought by the administration would permit the United States to place 100 interceptor missiles in Alaska, which is the Pentagon's latest plan for defending the country against, at a bare minimum, a few incoming warheads from a state such as North Korea, Iraq or Iran. As the missile threat is perceived to grow and as U.S. technologies improve, officials said, the United States would seek further treaty amendments to permit more than 200 interceptors, at least two launching sites, advances in radar and the use of space-based sensors. Official proposals of the Clinton administration to Russia became known to the wide audience in the end of April 2000.

Congressional Republicans attacked the strategy, accusing the administration of squandering an opportunity to alter the treaty substantially now and arguing that the phased approach would only prolong tensions with Russia. They said that Moscow, which has long opposed U.S. defenses against long-range missile attack, likely would reject even the limited proposal for modifications. They also predicted trouble in Congress. The most conservative wing in the U.S. Congress insists that ABM Treaty is dead, because it was concluded with the Soviet Union, which does not exist. The Senate refused to ratify ABM protocols, signed in Helsinki, thus blocking START II Treaty entry in force, which was ratified by Russia in April 2000.

Wide debates in the United States on national missile defense deployment are objectively driven by two factors: interests of the U.S. military-industrial complex and forthcoming presidential elections. According to recent Congressional Budget Office estimates NMD deployment would cost at least $ 60 billion. Thus far public supports the idea of creating defense against ballistic missiles. However, there are factors that may eventually change public attitudes. The most vulnerable part of the proposed NMD system is its inability to effectively counter with countermeasures, and this fact is constantly underscored by NMD opponents.

U.S. plans to deploy national missile defense system did not get support among U.S. allies. France, Germany, Canada and UK officials stated, that such a step would undermine strategic stability. China strongly opposes U.S. plans, since NMD will threaten to its small group of ICBMs, which are capable to reach the U.S. territory.

First rounds of U.S.-Russian talks in August and October 1999 did not produce any results, as well as the later numerous meetings and the summit meeting of the U.S. and Russian presidents in June 2000. Russian official attitude remains unchanged: U.S. proposals are unacceptable for Russia, and the ABM Treaty of 1972 must be kept intact.

In the beginning of June 2000, President Putin proposed creating a joint missile shield with Europe as an alternative to the U.S. NMD deployment. "Russia proposed working with Europe and NATO to create an anti-rocket defense system for Europe," Mr. Putin told reporters during his visit to Italy. Putin's proposal became a total surprise and created much speculations. Chinese foreign ministry made clear, that China would not support the proposal. European countries were also doubtful about the Russian seriousness. During visits of defense ministers Sergeyev and Cohen to Brussels and Moscow respectively, plans of Moscow became a bit clearer. According to Cohen, "...the Russians claim they have a new system under development that focuses on intercepting missiles in the boost phase..." However, the Pentagon says that the Russian plan is, at best a supplement for the American system, not a substitute

Russian experts do not share a common opinion on expediency of the ABM Treaty modification. Some of them support the official attitude. Other experts believe that the treaty needs to be modified. Even if Russia agrees to modify the Treaty, there is a wide spectrum of opinions on what amendments are permissible and what Russia should ask for in exchange. Frequently experts propose permission of ABM site in Alaska in exchange of a requirement to lower START III level to 1,500 deployed warheads.

Obviously, Russia is facing a dilemma. Russian refusal to amend the 1972 agreement will likely lead to U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty, so that further bilateral process of nuclear reductions become impossible. An alternative is modifying the treaty. However, viability of the compromise is also questionable, because an outcome of presidential elections and an attitude of the next U.S. administration are not clear.

The discussion continues. Thus, this page will likely be updated.

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