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U.S./Russia: Analysts Expect ABM Deal Will Eventually Be Made

  • Andrew Tully

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush ended their three-day summit on 15 November at Bush's Texas ranch without any new announcements. The summit's major achievement, in fact, came on the first day, when Bush pledged large cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and Putin indicated he would match the reduction. But the two leaders failed to reach a compromise on the key issue of modifying the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to make way for U.S. national missile-defense tests. But analysts say the cuts in strategic weapons alone made the summit a success.

Washington, 16 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign policy analysts say they are not disappointed that Russian President Putin and U.S. President Bush did not announce a compromise on the ABM Treaty during Putin's visit to the United States.

Although the two leaders failed to reach an agreement on the divisive issue during the course of their three-day summit, analysts told RFE/RL they expect a deal will be struck eventually. In fact, they believe relations between the two countries -- like the two leaders' personal relations -- are now so cordial that agreement is inevitable.

The analysts also say Bush is in a stronger position because he can simply abrogate the treaty if Russia continues to reject the modifications that would permit the U.S. to proceed with testing and perhaps eventual deployment of a national missile-defense shield. They say that, for now, Bush is merely giving Putin the opportunity to appear to permit these tests to proceed.

In any case, the analysts say, the summit was a resounding success because of Bush's announcement on 13 November at a joint White House news conference with Putin that he will unilaterally reduce the number of America's strategic nuclear weapons from about 7,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads.

Putin pledged comparable cuts. He also said he would like these cuts to be codified in a treaty, apparently hoping to prevent the U.S. from reversing course and increasing the size of the arsenal sometime in the future. But it is unclear whether Putin will insist on this measure.

On 15 November at a high school in Crawford, Texas -- where the U.S. president and first lady hosted Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, at their ranch -- Bush summarized the summit this way: "We are both pledging to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons, offensive weapons we have in order to make the world more secure. We're talking about ways to cooperate in antiterrorism and antiproliferation. We are talking about ways to make sure our economies can grow together. What we're talking about is a new relationship."

For his part, the Russian president signaled yet again that although no deal was struck on the ABM Treaty, there is still room for compromise on the issue. Speaking on 15 November in New York to U.S. National Public Radio, Putin had this to say: "We believe that the 1972 treaty that we have now is flexible enough to use it in our joint effort to increase the level of security for both the United States and Russia."

He added that no matter how talks proceeded on ABM and missile defense, the U.S.-Russian relationship will remain strong and supportive: "The [U.S.] administration has its own approach to how this problem can be solved. I do not have any doubts, however -- no matter which scenario unfolds -- our bilateral relationship will not deteriorate from the level that it is at now, and at the end of the day we will be able to arrive at a solution that will be acceptable for everyone involved."

Celeste Wallander is the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy institute. She told RFE/RL that the reduction in strategic warheads will go a long way toward persuading Putin -- and many of his senior aides -- to accept modifications to the ABM Treaty. Wallander notes that while Putin says he is flexible about altering the treaty, some military officials may be more rigid: "I think the sensible people in the Russian leadership understand that if there is not going to be a revision of the ABM Treaty that allows the United States to do testing and development right now on some kinds of systems, the Bush administration will abrogate the treaty and walk out of it."

But Wallander concedes that abrogating the treaty -- or "moving beyond" it, as Bush says -- will probably have a price. She says there may be some complaints from China and Europe. Even more seriously, such a move might halt the warming relations between the U.S. and Russia at a time when Washington needs Moscow's help in its war on terrorism.

Wallander says she does not believe U.S.-Russian relations would necessarily worsen, but at the same time, abrogating the treaty would not improve them, either: "It's not as if there would be a breach in relations. It's not that the Russians would entirely stop cooperating with us. But we would not be able to pursue the opportunity for even more substantial cooperation in the war against terrorism. It would be harder for Putin to make the argument for taking next steps -- as there will be next steps -- in the war on terrorism that would involve a lot more active Russian cooperation in intelligence sharing and coordinating, possibly on the next stages of military missions if there's that, money laundering, and all these sorts of things."

Anders Aslund agrees that abrogating the treaty would have costs. He specializes in international affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another policy research center in Washington.

But Aslund says Bush perhaps should be more concerned about the reaction of Europe, not Russia. He says the people of Europe -- excluding Britons -- tend to see the ABM Treaty as an important barrier to an uncontrolled arms race.

Aslund told RFE/RL that it is also probably wrong to think of a compromise on the ABM Treaty as somehow more important than the reduction in nuclear weapons. He says the weapons cut is an important step in itself: "I think that it's really an important decision that stands on its own, stands on its own merits. There's no reason to have all these dangerous arms lying around when they're of no use, and it's better, then, to clean them up so that nothing can happen to them. I think that's the central point."

Ted Galen Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, also a policy center in Washington. He told RFE/RL that Putin wants to keep the focus first on the reduction in nuclear arms, then on any concessions he may make on modifications to the ABM Treaty.

Carpenter was asked why Putin is so eager to have the U.S. set down its cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenal in treaty form. RFE/RL asked if Russia is not eager to cut its own arsenal because of the great expense of maintaining it: "Absolutely, but what a great deal if [Putin] can get the United States to do the same, and he can portray this as a success for Russian diplomacy and a breakthrough in the whole U.S.-Russian relationship. Much better than if he simply has to make unilateral cuts because of fiscal constraints."

Carpenter says he believes Bush and Putin already have reached, in principle, an acceptable compromise on ABM that might allow some testing of an anti-missile defense shield. Therefore, he concludes that Bush's promise to reduce America's strategic arsenal is not linked to an eventual deal on modifying the ABM. Besides, he notes that Bush has been talking about cutting nuclear warheads since his campaign for the presidency last year: "I think there's probably a handshake [that is, an informal] deal already on how to proceed with missile defenses, how to deal with the ABM Treaty. But the details have to be worked out, and that has to be presented to the publics in both countries rather carefully."

The result, Carpenter says, is a victory for Putin -- but one that Bush can afford to let him have: "I think Putin has played a very weak hand very skillfully. He knew the United States was going to go ahead with missile defense, no matter what Russia said on the issue. But by portraying himself as cooperative, he has managed to get the United States to make a major concession on the size of the strategic arsenals, a concession that will definitely benefit Russia, and that he can portray domestically as a big concession and a great success for Russian diplomacy."

Carpenter says he expects the two men will settle the details of an ABM compromise in the coming months, and that an announcement will likely be made when Bush visits Russia in 2002.