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Russia/U.S.: Agreement Nears On Missile Defense

After months of disagreement, the U.S. and Russia appear to be nearing a common position on the issue of missile defense. Russia has signaled it may be willing to compromise on the issue of U.S. plans to build a limited missile-defense system. This apparent narrowing of differences comes just ahead of a planned summit in the United States between U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin -- their fourth face-to-face encounter this year.

Prague, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Russia seem to be advancing toward a compromise on the issue of U.S. missile defense. Cooperation between the two nations in the war against terrorism appears to have created a good climate to sort out topics that had been hindering U.S.-Russia relations.

Moscow has strongly opposed U.S. plans to build a limited national missile-defense system, known as NMD, because it would abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Russian officials have said they consider the ABM treaty to be a cornerstone of arms control agreements between Moscow and Washington.

Russian officials hinted they would be willing to compromise on the issue. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, fresh from talks with his visiting U.S. counterpart Donald Rumsfeld in early November, indicated that Russia agrees -- at least in part -- that the treaty is a relic of the Cold War: "The ABM treaty is an important -- although not the only -- element of strategic stability. They tell us often that the ABM is hopelessly out of date, that it is a relic of the Cold War. In part, I agree with that. But before we get rid of one or another agreement, although it is the sovereign right of the United States to pull out of this or that agreement, we think it is better to do that only when something new has been created as a replacement."

Those comments were echoed today by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking to U.S. television station ABC, Putin said Russia has what he called a "flexible" position on the U.S. missile-defense plan. Putin said any deal with Washington to alter the ABM treaty would require intense negotiations, but that he thinks a compromise might be possible.

The Bush administration says a national missile-defense system is needed to shield the U.S. from missiles fired by so-called rogue states such as Iran, Iraq, or North Korea. U.S. officials say the ABM treaty is, indeed, a relic of the Cold War.

U.S. missile defense plans and the ABM treaty are expected to figure prominently in the agenda of a summit between Bush and Putin on 13-15 November.

Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based journalist who covers defense issues, believes the two countries are nearing agreement on the ABM dispute. He says Bush and Putin are likely to reach a compromise that will allow the U.S. to continue tests on a national missile-defense system while allowing the Russian president to save face: "The main task now is to give, on the one hand, the United States the possibility to continue its tests on the NMD program, and, on the other hand, to give Putin the opportunity to save face. Because for a long period of time Russia has been insisting that the ABM treaty is a cornerstone of international security and that a lot of disarmament agreements will be broken if America [leaves] the ABM treaty and so on. Now, the ABM treaty seems to be not so important as it was [just] a few months ago."

Ivan Safranchuk, the head of the Moscow branch of the Center for Defense Information, agrees the two sides are coming together. But he says the impetus is not so much a nearing of views on missile defense but rather that the two do not want a disagreement on ABM to complicate relations in other areas, such as the international fight against terrorism: "I don't think there'll be any big agreement in Texas [on 13-15 November]. I think there'll be a kind of joint statement or maybe a joint protocol. But there won't be any treaty signed with the modification of the ABM treaty, with big detailed cuts [on nuclear warheads]."

Golts says negotiators are likely to use the complicated wording of the ABM treaty to allow the U.S. to continue testing for a national missile-defense system without formally abrogating or withdrawing from the treaty: "The ABM treaty is a rather complicated document and different lawyers came to different conclusions on when and in what stage of the development of the NMD America will break the ABM treaty. Some people say that the ABM treaty permits some tests and other say that it is [impossible]. So it is more or less clear that Russia and the U.S. will agree with the most liberal interpretation of the ABM. That is, [the interpretation] that permits Americans to continue their tests on NMD."

The ABM treaty was militarily important when it was signed, since it prevented both sides from gaining a strategic edge over the other by building up their defensive systems. But Golts says the treaty lost its military value over time and has played more of a psychological role in helping Russia maintain its "superpower" status.

Golts says, however, that now -- after the 11 September terrorist attacks -- Russia no longer needs the psychological support of the treaty. He says it's clear that Russia has allied itself with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition: "The ABM was a guarantee that Russia is still a superpower and that the United States and all the economically developed countries will accept Russia in their club. [Russia's] nuclear forces are the single attribute of a superpower [that the country has]. But now after America started its operation in Afghanistan, it is absolutely clear that Russia is an ally of the West. In all scenarios and in all the pictures of a future world, it will play a rather prominent role. And from this point of view, the ABM treaty is not so important for Russia."

An agreement on missile defense is likely to be accompanied by mutual pledges to cut nuclear arsenals. Analysts say the two countries could agree to reduce the number of warheads to 1,500 or 2,500 from the current 6,000 to 7,000. Golts says it's important for Russia to be seen keeping its nuclear balance with the U.S.