Prague, 29 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The United States, Russia and three other ex-Soviet states signed last week in New York a package of five arms reduction agreements, making it possible for further cuts in nuclear weapons.
The agreements deal with two sets of issues. One is concerned with preserving the viability of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, a major factor in maintaining international strategic stability. The ABM limits the number of anti-ballistic missiles system each country can have.
The other deals with scheduling of cutbacks in U. S. and Russian stockpiles of long-range nuclear missiles that have already been agreed upon under the START-2 (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) treaty.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was joined by Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and counterparts from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine in a ceremonial signing of a memorandum under which the newly independent states -- Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- assume the rights and obligations once held by the Soviet Union with respect to ABM system components located at their territories. These components include test ranges and early warning radar systems, which have been positioned on Soviet Union's borders (Belarus, Ukraine).
The memorandum and two additional agreements reaffirm prohibitions on longer-range defensive weapons and on developing, testing or deploying space-based interceptor missiles. But they also open the way for the development of shorter-range defensive missiles systems -- so called theater defense missiles (TDM) -- by separating it from the broader ABM treaty.
The new TDMs are now being tested by the United States with the intention of replacing older weapons such as the Patriot missiles used in the Gulf War against Iraqi Scud missiles.
The agreement ends the long controversy about the acceptability of the TDM technology. The breakthrough came at the Helsinki U.S.-Russia summit in March, when the two sides agreed to impose limits on speed and range of the missiles that could be used in testing (about three miles per second and about 2,000 miles). The acceptance of these limits provided the basis for the current agreement.
The second set of issues involved an agreement between Albright and Primakov to extend until the end of the year 2007 the deadline for destroying the long-range heavy missiles with multiple warheads as well as their delivery systems (silos, bombers and submarines).
The destruction of these weapons was agreed upon in the START-2 treaty, which set the deadline for the year 2003. The current agreement says that the missiles system must merely disabled by that year, with the destruction postponed for another four years.
This represented a concession by the United States, prompted by Washington's anxiety over the ratification of the treaty itself by the State Duma. The START-2 has already been ratified by the U.S. Senate but is still held back by nationalistic Russian politicians over fears of possible U.S. military domination.
Some Russian politicians and military officials have been saying that Moscow cannot compete with the United State in developing increasingly sophisticated defense systems and, therefore, has to rely on their existing nuclear stocks for defense against possible attacks.
The agreement postponing the destruction of nuclear weapons systems is apparently meant to reassure the Russians that the U.S. does not contemplate developing systems which could endanger Russia.
It also takes into consideration the financial difficulties of destroying the heavy weapons installations.
Albright and Primakov both hailed the agreement as a major step forward in reducing the nuclear arsenals. They have said that this development opens the possibility for negotiations of new more wide-ranging talks on reduction of nuclear weapons (START-3). This view has been also shared by large numbers of experts and analysts.
But the signing itself does not resolve differences still existing between the sides. There are still considerable doubts whether the State Duma, dominated by communists and nationalists, will act promptly to ratify START-2. And there have been also objections in the U.S. Senate to the agreements, particularly to a clause banning research and testing of new interceptor defensive missiles systems on the ground that this impedes possible new technological advances. The agreements must be approved by the U. S. Congress to be implemented.