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Russia: Duma Official Criticizes U.S. Decision To Scrap ABM Treaty

  • Francesca Mereu

The chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, Aleksei Arbatov, spoke yesterday with reporters about the recent U.S. decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Arbatov said the U.S. decision is not the result of true strategic or political necessity but rather has been prompted by the success of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan. As RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports, the defense official said Russia accepted the U.S. decision and added the two countries can still cooperate on issues of mutual interest.

Moscow, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the past two years, Russia has been warning the U.S. that withdrawing from the 1972 ABM Treaty would rock the foundations of global security.

But when the White House finally made the long-anticipated announcement that it was abandoning the historic treaty -- Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted with surprising equanimity, saying only that the decision was a "mistake."

"This step was not a surprise for us. Nevertheless, we consider this decision a mistake," Putin said. "As we know, Russia -- like the United States and unlike the rest of the nuclear powers -- has spent a long time designing an efficient system for overcoming anti-ballistic missile defenses. So I can, with full confidence, say that the decision made by the U.S. president does not threaten the national security of the Russian Federation."

Speaking with reporters on 17 December, Aleksei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, said he believes that the U.S. decision was, in fact, a surprise for Putin. But Arbatov added that for the Russia president to admit surprise would have been tantamount to admitting he made a mistake in adopting his new pro-Western stance.

"President Putin couldn't say that [the U.S. decision] was unexpected. [He also couldn't say] that America's behavior was wrong and that it may have bad consequences for [Russian-U.S.] relations in other fields. If he said so, it would have [meant] that he was retreating from his [pro-Western] position. There would have been a lot of accusations from within the country," Arbatov said. "This is the reason why he reacted with moderation. He had to choose the right words to express his position in the matter. Even if -- I'm sure -- inside he was boiling. But he had to express himself diplomatically and to play down the [issue], English-style."

Arbatov himself criticized the U.S. decision, saying the Americans had used their success -- aided by Russia -- in the Afghan military campaign to bolster support for abandoning the treaty. Arbatov says that in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, Russia and the U.S. seemed to find common ground and appeared to be growing closer. But December's decision to leave the treaty, he says, changed everything.

"We [Russia and the U.S.] have many common interests. We have a common enemy. The problems that used to divide us could have been solved. Now I can't say that's true," Arbatov said. "The Americans [withdrawing] from this treaty -- that was very important for Russia from a military and a political point of view -- it demonstrated how they view our partnership and relations. It is like the relationship between a rider and a mule."

Arbatov says those Russians who originally opposed supporting the U.S. in its antiterrorism campaign now believe that they were right: "The [ABM] treaty is broken. The mood [of Russians] has taken a blow. Those who backed [Russia-] U.S. relations in particular have been let down. But, in contrast, those who used to say 'No, you cannot change the Americans. We shouldn't help them in Afghanistan, they would never appreciate it.' [Now they say,] 'This is what we get for helping the U.S. for the past few months.'"

The 1972 ABM Treaty, signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, bars the United States and Russia from unilaterally developing missile-defense shields, based on the premise that the threat of mutual assured destruction will prevent nuclear war.

The U.S. says the treaty is outdated and an obstacle to building a limited missile-defense system. The system would be aimed at repelling missiles fired by terrorists or rogue states such as Iraq or North Korea.

Arbatov says the U.S. is taking a large risk in pursuing a missile-defense shield since there is no indication that such a system will work. But he says the successful military campaign in Afghanistan has bolstered the confidence of what he called "non-intelligent" U.S. officials who support the defense shield.

"The operation in Afghanistan has succeeded. Now there is a euphoric [mood in the U.S.] and this group [of American politicians] decided to demonstrate that the U.S. has not changed and that it will behave how it used to behave," Arbatov said. "The U.S. will take care of its own interests according to what this small group of non-intelligent politicians believe [America's] interests to be. They won't ask either Russia or their partners or anyone for advice."

Arbatov went on to say that the U.S. decision would not pose a threat to Russian security, and that Russian officials should continue to cooperate with the U.S. on areas of mutual interest. At the same time, he called for revising Russia's nuclear-forces strategy.

The chairman of the Federation Council's foreign affairs committee, Mikhail Margelov, said on 16 December that he does not rule out the possibility that Russia may respond to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty by withdrawing from the START-2 treaty.

Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Margelov as saying Russia's withdrawal from START-2 could prove to be "the most effective and pragmatic option aimed at maintaining the country's national security at the proper level." Margelov added, however, that he did not think such a step would be appropriate in the near future. Margelov also said the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty had been "long expected."

The State Duma rejected on 14 December a draft message to the U.S. Congress, saying the decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty contradicts the spirit of cooperation between civilized countries in resisting international terrorism, and "complicates the prevention of access to weapons of mass destruction."