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Russia: Response To News Of U.S. 'Nuclear Posture Review' Is Muted

  • Kathleen Moore

Russia has asked the U.S. for an explanation of its "Nuclear Posture Review," presented to the U.S. Congress in January and leaked to the U.S. press in early March. The review outlines possible scenarios for using nuclear weapons against a number of countries, including Russia. Reports about the review came just ahead of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's visit to Washington, where he is taking up the issue in two days of talks with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld. Given the warming of relations between the two countries following 11 September, it seems odd to place Russia on a list of potential U.S. opponents. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports that reaction by Moscow to the review has so far been muted.

Prague, 13 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The September terrorist attacks on the United States ushered in a period of warmer relations between the U.S. and Russia, as Moscow quickly offered to cooperate in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

But as the U.S. prepared to mark the six-month anniversary of those attacks, "The Los Angeles Times" published details of classified Pentagon contingency studies for nuclear strikes against a number of countries that have or are believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction. The "Nuclear Posture Review," the newspaper said, includes Russia on that list, along with China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria.

U.S. officials downplayed the report. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said it is "long-standing American policy" for the U.S. president to reserve his options in determining how to respond should some state attack the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to reassure Russia that it is not considered an enemy. He told a U.S. Senate subcommittee yesterday that no country is being targeted day-to-day. He also reiterated that the U.S. will continue to cut its nuclear arsenal.

The report prompted the Russian Foreign Ministry to ask Washington for an explanation. If the contents of the review are accurate as reported, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said, "This can only cause regret and concern not only in Russia, but in the international community as a whole."

News of the review came just ahead of a visit to Washington by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who took up the issue yesterday during talks with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld.

In Moscow, some articles in the Russian press report unease about the U.S. "Nuclear Posture Review" in military circles. These reports also label the study as the latest in a line of Russian humiliations at the hands of the U.S. and its allies. These alleged humiliations include the American withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, NATO's eastward expansion, and a perceived reluctance by Washington to commit arms cuts to a treaty. Outside of defense, recent trade disputes -- over U.S. steel import tariffs and Russia's ban on U.S. poultry imports -- have further cast a pall on relations.

But while the "Nuclear Posture Review" may have ruffled some Russian feathers, official reaction in Moscow so far has been mixed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin today -- while not referring directly to the review -- said U.S.-Russian relations still continue to be weighed down by the heavy legacy of the past. But he added, "I think they [U.S.-Russia relations] are developing positively. In fact, the quality of our relations has changed for the better. It doesn't mean, however, that we don't have interests that are different from American [interests]."

Despite Foreign Minister Ivanov's demands for an explanation from Washington, he also appeared to try to assuage fears over the review when he spoke in the State Duma today. He told deputies there is nothing new in a nuclear state such as the U.S. defining sites that could be targeted in cases of crisis or conflict. But he added that the form the review takes, as well as its timing, is of concern. He said the review reads as if it was written "without any regard for the current state of relations between our two countries."

Sergei Mikhailov is deputy director of Moscow's Russian Public Policy Center. He says reaction in Moscow has been a bit muted, especially compared to the sharp comments that would have been expected not so long ago.

"Maybe it prompted a certain reaction from the Russian military, but I was surprised myself that in [Russian] society, it passed fairly quietly," Mikhailov says.

He says the recent steel tariffs dispute with the U.S. caused much sharper reactions among ordinary Russians, since people can more easily see how the tariffs could affect a particular industry or specific areas of the country.

"I think that Moscow was not especially concerned, since you could say the current level of Russian-U.S. relations in the last six months after September 11 are what you could call neighborly, though not those of allies. I don't think this [review] was seen as a threat," Mikhailov says.

This is an opinion echoed by Andrew Kennedy, a fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute. He says the U.S. administration probably would have preferred to have issued the "Nuclear Posture Review" earlier, but he believes the relationship between Washington and Moscow can weather this particular storm.

"Now is the time they can turn around and say to Russia, 'Look, we're publishing this new policy. Part of it may upset you slightly, but these are the reasons we're doing it.' And the better diplomatic relations between the two countries has maybe eased the path of this new policy to come out," Kennedy says.

One potential point of tension is the perception that the review lowers the U.S. threshold for using nuclear weapons. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said this could seriously weaken the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Kennedy says the problem is to strike a balance between the principles of nuclear deterrence and the actual use of nuclear weapons. He says the massive size of the nuclear arsenals in the Cold War era were deterrents in and of themselves, since it was hard to believe such arsenals would be used in response to a single nuclear strike from, say, a rogue state.

"But it's much more believable if you're sitting in your palace in Baghdad that the U.S. might use a much smaller-sized nuclear weapon to attack me if I attack their troops with chemical weapons, or if I conduct a massive terrorist strike against a U.S. target," Kennedy says. "So the idea is that by making the whole arsenal seem more usable, you enhance their deterrent factor and therefore you stop potential opponents from attacking you, so therefore you don't have to use them. It's a perverse kind of logic, but it's that kind of logic that potentially kept the peace during the Cold War as well."

Russian Defense Minister Ivanov emerged from his first round of talks with Rumsfeld yesterday urging patience from reporters eager to hear how the talks had progressed. He is due to hold a press conference after a second round of talks with Rumsfeld later today.