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Russia: Headway Made With U.S. On ABM Treaty Talks

There appears to be progress in efforts to resolve an impasse between Russia and the U.S. over American proposals to modify the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Our correspondent in Moscow reports that further steps may depend on progress in general disarmament issues, as well as U.S.-Russian cooperation in the budding field of fighting terrorism.

Moscow, 14 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and Russian officials taking part in disarmament talks in Moscow yesterday say progress is being made in resolving a dispute over U.S. efforts to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. The United States has long sought to amend the treaty to allow deployment of a limited missile defense.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen led the U.S. delegation at the talks. He said it was the first time he was able to talk with his Russian counterparts about the ways the U.S. hopes to amend the treaty. Cohen is quoted as saying he feels the treaty can be amended "in a way that takes into account Russian concerns."

The head of the Defense Committee in the State Duma, Roman Popkovich, echoed that mild optimism. He told RFE/RL he feels the U.S.'s current proposals for modifying the treaty are "unacceptable." But, Popkovich says, if the U.S. makes its proposals for building a new anti-missile system more transparent, then the changes could be discussed.

As it's written now, the ABM agreement bans deployment of defensive missiles whose sole purpose is to shoot down enemy rockets. The logic behind the Cold War-era treaty was that this type of defense system would only intensify the arms race by forcing countries to build newer and newer missiles capable of piercing an ever-developing protective umbrella.

The United States says it wants to amend the treaty to allow construction of an anti-missile system over Alaska. The shield would guard against missiles launched by rogue states in Asia or the Middle East.

Russia, on the other hand, sees the treaty as a cornerstone of non-proliferation and has been very reluctant to consider any changes to it. The Russian daily Kommersant also argues that changes to the treaty could upset relations with China, a staunch critic of any new U.S. anti-missile system.

Analysts in Moscow say any softening in Russia's stance on the ABM treaty would be strongly linked to progress in the general strategic arms reduction talks (START), which are aimed at lowering the numbers of nuclear warheads on both sides.

The United States and Russia are currently at an impasse over Russia's failure to ratify the Start II agreement, which cuts the number of nuclear warheads in each country's arsenal to about 3,000.

Start II was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1996, but it has not been ratified by the opposition-dominated Russian Duma. Analysts say Russian ratification will not come anytime soon because of this year's NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and U.S. air raids over Iraq.

Andrei Piontkovsky, an analyst with the Moscow-based think-tank American World Laboratory, says the U.S. could propel ABM talks by agreeing to begin discussions on Start II's successor, Start III. Talks on Start III have been stalled by the U.S.'s formal insistence that Start II first be ratified.

The Kremlin is pushing for early negotiations on Start III to take the pressure off the cash-strapped Russian armaments sector. Start III foresees cutting the number of warheads to 1,500 each.

Cohen's visit inevitably was overshadowed by yesterday's explosion at a housing project in an outlying area of Moscow. The explosion reduced a nine-story apartment block to rubble and killed more than 100 people.

Although no person or organization has come forward to accept responsibility for the explosion, or for a similar explosion a week ago that killed more than 90 people, officials have said they suspect terrorists -- possibly linked to an Islamic insurrection in the southern republic of Dagestan.

News of the blast prompted unplanned declarations of cooperation against terrorism. Cohen vowed the U.S. would share information on ways to combat terrorism. He says he'll ask U.S. experts to meet with their Russian counterparts to develop joint strategies.

Ironically, our correspondent writes, this cooperation against terror may also provide a way to jumpstart disarmament talks.

The Duma's Popkovich said his body may hasten to ratify Start II if the U.S. joins with Russia in trying to block illegal arms shipments to Islamist rebels in the north Caucasus.