In a recent U.S. television interview, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov indicated Russia may agree to a new nuclear-arms agreement that will permit the United States to stockpile some decommissioned weapons for possible future use instead of destroying them. Some defense analysts say Ivanov's comments reflecting the Kremlin's softening stance on what Russian officials just a few months ago had called the main sticking point toward an agreement on nuclear arms cuts.
Moscow, 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is likely to agree to a new nuclear treaty that would allow the United States to stockpile, rather than destroy, some of its decommissioned nuclear weapons, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in an interview on 17 March on the American NBC television network.
Ivanov's remarks came after meetings in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His comments suggest Russia may be softening its stance on an issue that until recently had been the main stumbling block in drafting an agreement on nuclear arms cuts before Bush's visit to Russia at the end of May.
In mid-November, Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to each cut strategic offensive weapons from current levels of 6,000 warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. But negotiations have been plagued by difficulties, both because of U.S. reluctance to the Kremlin's insistence on a legally binding agreement and because of the Kremlin's strong opposition to U.S. plans to store rather than destroy decommissioned weapons.
More recently, however, both sides have taken pains to appear more flexible on the issue. In addition to Ivanov's remarks, the U.S. last month said it was willing to try to draw up a legal agreement on arms cuts.
Ivan Safranchuk is the director of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information. He says the Kremlin's change of mood is unavoidable because Russia is more in need of a legally binding agreement than the U.S.: "I think it is a softening [of the previous Russian position], but it is an inevitable softening. Russia needs this agreement -- or Russia thinks it needs this agreement -- more than the United States. [And the party] who needs it should pay. And Russia [has] to pay with concessions, and this [agreement to allow the U.S. to stockpile weapons] is one of the concessions."
Safranchuk says Russia would actually prefer an agreement that allows it to keep a small number of warheads and regulate the destruction of the remaining weapons. But he says Moscow appears to understand that Washington is not willing to physically destroy weapons in order to reach the target levels of between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads.
Safranchuk says the United States is looking to put a number of weapons in storage and only then begin reducing its so-called "operational deployed arsenal." By the year 2012, the operational deployed weapons are expected to comprise 20-30 percent of the overall U.S. arsenal.
Pavel Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based independent defense analyst. He says Ivanov's remarks should not be interpreted as a concession on the part of the Russians.
"In the previous arms reduction agreements -- START-1 and actually START-2 -- those, of course, were never ratified and implemented. Warheads were never counted. I mean the decommissioning of warheads was the responsibility of each side, that wasn't controlled [whether] they could keep them or not. Perhaps this is a concession, but not of such a serious nature, because actually in previous agreements warheads were not regulated," Felgenhauer says.
Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based journalist specializing in defense issues, says the U.S. agreement to draft a legal framework for the cuts reflects the general warming of the U.S.-Russian relationship in the wake of the declared war on terror. But Golts says that the U.S. actually does not need a formal treaty on arms reductions with Russia:
"For Americans this agreement has a purely decorative character. They can keep nuclear weapons at the level they want. In addition, they know that within 10 years the Russian nuclear potential will sharply diminish even without any kind of agreement," Golts says. "This will happen because our missiles are getting older and older and [Russia] doesn't have the money to change them or to build new ones."
U.S. and Russian negotiators will meet in Geneva this week to work out the details of the nuclear arms reduction agreement. Under Secretary of State John Bolton will head the U.S. delegation, with Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Mamedov leading on the Russian side.
Safranchuk explains what, in his opinion, the nuclear arms agreement is expected to look like: "I think that the compromise between Russia and the United States will be something like this: the United States will agree that the treaty is to be a full treaty, a legally binding treaty subject for ratification in both countries. That is what Russia was insisting on and that is what the United States, I think, will accept. In turn, Russia will agree that Russia and the United States will reduce only the operational deployed warheads and will not physically eliminate all the warheads planned for destruction. So in this regard, Russia will agree to the U.S. position [regarding] the so-called 'shielding' of the nuclear weapons. The third major field of this agreement is the verification and the control procedures."
Safranchuk says he believes there is still enough time before Bush and Putin meet in late May to reach the agreement he described. But, he adds, it is not enough time to reach a serious and lasting accord.
"The treaty they are developing now will be more symbolic than [practical]. It will not be a very useful treaty. But, as [Defense Minister] Ivanov is always stressing, the international community is expecting some kind of document and this will be some kind of document. But it will be useless, in practical terms," Safranchuk says. "Both sides just have to meet the huge expectations of both domestic advocates of arms control and the international community. And they will meet these expectations by signing this 'light' treaty."
The Russian daily "Izvestia" this week ran the headline "Why Does Russia Need An Agreement With Nothing Inside?" The paper commented that if Russia cannot get the conditions it wants, it does not need to seal any agreement with the United States, since, "[Russia's] experience shows that it is better to reach no agreement than reach a bad one."