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Assessing Prospects for Development of U.S. - Russian Strategic Relations

August 1, 2001

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Many Western media evaluate the July 2001 Bush-Putin Summit as a breakthrough in US-Russian relations. However, let's try to see if it was a real breakthrough and has anything changed at all?

Moscow did not change its stance for the preservation of the 1972 ABM Treaty. Moreover, Russian position is that destruction of this treaty will not only destabilize the world balance, but also make further reduction of Russian (and therefore American) strategic arms impossible.

Until very recently, the US administration declared that the proposed missile defense system does not pose any threat to Russia; that since NMD is a limited system and is designed to handle threats from so-called "rogue states", Moscow should not worry about its strategic potential being undermined. The US recognized importance of strategic arms reductions, but considered it as a back-row issue, unrelated to the missile defense problems.

In Genoa, an understanding has been reached that issues of strategic weapons and defense systems are interrelated, and have to be considered together and at the same time. Hence, that was not a breakthrough, rather a return to the approach that has always been recognized when dealing with problems of global stability.

During subsequent talks by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in Moscow, an intention was expressed to conduct all necessary consultations in short time, and to prepare all necessary proposals in time for the next Bush-Putin Summit scheduled for November of this year in Texas.

However, it all depends on what really will the parties propose during these consultation.

Up till now, the US proposed Russia nothing concrete, except of the coordinated withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. So far, no official viewpoint has been expressed on what will the American missile defense system represent and how "limited" it will be. The fog is even thicker in what concerns possible strategic arms reductions. Washington, referring to unavailability of its own plans on nuclear arms development because the work on them is delayed, is still undecided on the sufficient level of their nuclear arsenal. Also, the US is not prepared to conclude legally binding agreements on nuclear arms reductions.

Moscow's readiness for these consultations seems to be much more advanced. In Genoa, the presidents de-facto recognized nuclear deterrence as a legitimate element of national policy, hence Russia's declared position that NMD deployment has not to be allowed seems to be sufficiently well-reasoned. The problem of defense against rogue states is proposed to proceed to by means of joint assessment of the missile threat, and removing the concerns by political means. Regarding strategic arms, Russian position is absolutely concrete: set overall level on strategic arms at 1500 warheads for each side. If other nuclear states join the reduction process, the proposal is to set the total level of nuclear warheads at 4000 after reductions (basing on an assessment that currently the total number of nuclear weapons possessed by other nuclear states is under 1000 warheads).

Now we should wait for concrete proposals from Washington.

At the same time, taking into account political mood of the Bush's administration, their tendency to leave the logic of military-political reasoning, and low probability that Russian counter-measures could make sobering effect on the US, any positive moves on this issues are very unlikely for the next one-two years.

In this situation all responsibility for destabilization of the world balance lies on the US. Fundamental changes of American presidents' views on the issues of "war and peace" are not news. It is sufficient to remember "star wars" program declared by president Reagan in 1983. In the 90-s another US president and Congress safely buried this program. Current president George W. Bush's program also seems to be destined for burial sooner or later.

In practice, for the next decade, the pointed out destabilization will have an influence on the arms race between other countries rather than affect strategic relations between Russia and US. The reasons are that, first, US will not be able to develop an effective missile defense in this period of time. Second, the remaining substantial Russian nuclear potential and possible countermeasures will help Russia to ensure protection of its national security.

Gennady Khromov
member of Soviet delegation to START I talks,
contact address: www-start@armscontrol.ru.

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© Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2001