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Russia: Military Divided On Formal Weapons-Reductions Treaty With US

In Russia, a number of military officials are welcoming the U.S. government's newfound readiness -- signaled in remarks by Secretary of State Colin Powell on 5 February -- to work out a legally binding document on reducing weapons stockpiles. But others say it is still early to speak about a real accord being struck between Russia and the U.S.

Moscow, 7 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In an unexpected policy reversal, the United States has signaled it is willing to sign a formal agreement with Russian on reducing nuclear weapons.

The U.S. had previously indicated it was willing to cut its stockpiles but was prepared to strike only a verbal agreement with Russia on the issue. But speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 5 February, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated the U.S. was ready to seal a reduction deal with more than a handshake.

"We do expect that as we codify this framework it will be something that will be legally binding and we're examining different ways in which this can happen. It can be an executive agreement that both Houses of Congress might wish to speak on, or it might be a treaty."

Officials in Russia -- which had said it would not begin a reduction program without a formal agreement -- welcomed Powell's statement.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called Washington's reversal "an important signal that indicates the two major nuclear powers are continuing to seek understanding on arms control."

Colonel General Yurii Baluev, first deputy chief of Russia's General Staff, yesterday told Russia's Interfax news agency it is possible to reach an agreement that "will satisfy both countries" and be welcomed by world community, "which expects precisely such a decision from the two top nuclear powers."

Baluev, who is heading a group of Russian experts in Washington for consultations, says reduction documents will likely be prepared before U.S. President George W. Bush visits Moscow in late May.

Alexander Golts is a Moscow-based journalist specializing in defense issues. He told RFE/RL that Powell's announcement, while welcome, did not come as a surprise for Russian politicians and military officials.

"[Powell's statement] wasn't unexpected [in Russia]. Just a few days earlier, some high-ranking American diplomats -- in particular the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow -- said the United States was ready to sign a legally binding agreement. This is a very important event and, I think, it will meet with a positive response in Moscow."

General Valeri Cheban is an adviser to Andrei Nikolaev, the chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. Cheban told RFE/RL why a formal agreement on strategic arms control is so important.

"I think the Russian Federation's request to officially codify the [strategic arms control] agreement are well grounded. Not having a document of this kind gives rise to manipulation and loose interpretation of previous commitments. In short, it releases you from any responsibility concerning important military-political and diplomatic decisions."

Late last year Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to cut strategic offensive weapons from currents levels of 6,000 warheads each to between 1,500 and 2,000 warheads, but the two leaders split on the issue of a written agreement. Washington's reversal appears to be a victory of sorts for Putin, who had refused to back down from his request for a binding document.

Cheban says that by signing a formal agreement, Russia and the U.S. will be cooperating in the spirit of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and setting a positive example for other countries likely to deal with nuclear issues in the future.

"Those [countries] that today or tomorrow will join the 'nuclear club' sooner or later will encounter problems, and will need to reach a [legally binding] agreement. They will look around to see who has experience in these matters. They will look at the United States and at Russia -- then the Soviet Union -- [as examples of] how they worked on the basis of [legally binding] agreements, even if it was sometimes difficult and hard. The bases of the agreements were formal. That is, people took responsibility for the decisions being made."

Golts adds that the U.S. decision also comes as a welcome signal to Russian military officials who worried the U.S. had permanently backtracked from making any formal agreements.

"Our military and diplomats are used to working under [formally] signed and respected agreements. When the United States announced their decision to leave the ABM Treaty, and when they refused to sign the [Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention], people in Moscow were distrustful. [They thought] America didn't want to sign any agreements. Now the decision of the American administration has put an end to these concerns."

But Leonid Ivashov, deputy chairman of the Geopolitical Problems Academy and a former Defense Ministry senior official, said on Russian television yesterday that he opposes the signing of any treaty with the U.S. Ivashov said that since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has failed to respect a number of previously-signed documents, most notably the ABM Treaty.

In an interview published in today's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily, Aleksei Arbatov, the deputy head of the Duma Defense Committee, says a formal treaty on arms reductions is a necessity for Russia but not for the U.S. He says any U.S. decision to formalize the arms agreement is being done "out of charity, because they know we had already decided to unilaterally cut our strategic arms."