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The Russia Journal
November 9-15, 2001
Russia, U.S. seek to solve ABM dilemma
The two sides look increasingly likely to reinterpret the 1972 treaty


When they meet in a few days, the Russian and U.S. presidents could resolve a problem that, on the one hand, complicates relations between the two countries, and on the other, gives plenty of work and promotion opportunities to military officials, diplomats and analysts.

The problem in question is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which sets restrictions on anti-missile defenses. It prohibits the development of a national missile-defense system in order to maintain the mutually assured destruction principle that was the only way of reducing the risk of nuclear war during the years of Cold War confrontation.

But, since the 1980s, the United States has made attempts to develop a national missile-defense system. First the Reagan administration, and now the Bush administration, have made missile defense a national priority.

Today, just as 20 years ago, these plans meet stiff resistance from Moscow. During the Reagan era, the Soviet Union feared that the United States would gain an immense military advantage. But even today, though it has repeatedly proclaimed the end of the Cold War and declared itself a strategic partner of the United States, Russia still makes a tremendous effort to keep its status as a nation able to destroy America.

For Russian strategists, nuclear parity with the United States was the ticket to the club of great powers, enabling Moscow to defend national interests even when it didn’t have the economic or political means to back up its ambitions. But Washington doesn’t want to abandon its projects, and has threatened to pull out of the ABM Treaty unilaterally.

As if by magic, however, the situation has suddenly changed. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who only recently insisted that nothing would get Washington to give up its missile-defense plans, has now announced the cancellation of tests scheduled for November so as not to ruin relations with Russia.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a firm supporter of leaving the ABM Treaty untouched, forced himself to say, a few days ago, that the treaty could be partially seen as a Cold War relic. Ivanov also said it was essential to define a new formula for strategic stability.

The U.S. and Russian defense ministers and diplomats have held intensive talks over the weeks running up to President Vladimir Putin’s visit to America. The negotiators have said that the two sides haven’t found a solution yet, but think the road is open for agreement on the right formula.

So, does this mean a miracle has occurred and the negotiators have managed to reconcile U.S. missile-defense plans with the ABM Treaty, which is based entirely on prohibiting such plans? More likely, Washington and Moscow have simply decided to make use of the ABM Treaty’s complexity as a way out of their dead end.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said last summer that, if asked at what point tests of components of a missile-defense system would violate the treaty provisions, five different legal experts would give five different answers. It looks now as though the two sides have agreed to interpret the treaty in a way that would give the United States more room to maneuver. This would allow the United States to install several interceptor-missiles in Alaska next year and begin testing sea-based missiles.

Of course, an agreement of this kind indicates the Kremlin’s unstated assent to American missile-defense plans. But, at the same time, it formally keeps the ABM Treaty intact. This lets Putin save face and, after the summit with Bush, he will be able to announce that – thanks to Moscow’s reasonable approach the treaty – the "cornerstone of strategic stability" is still in place.

The Americans, meanwhile, are serious in their plans to reduce their strategic offensive nuclear arsenal from 2,250 to 1,750 warheads. This means that Russia, whose aging nuclear arsenal will decrease anyway, has a hope of keeping parity with the United States. It is also possible that the Americans could tacitly agree to Moscow fitting its missiles with multiple warheads in violation of the START-2 Treaty, which hasn’t come into force yet. This would save Moscow a lot of money.

But most important is that the ABM Treaty has lost the political significance that Russia always gave it. After the events of Sept. 11, Russia does not need to prove anymore that it is a crucial pillar in ensuring world security. It’s clear now that even without the ABM Treaty, Moscow is becoming a major partner for Washington in the fight against terrorism.

It is increasingly evident that only limited use can be made of Pakistan in the fight against the Taliban. This means that bases in post-Soviet Central Asian republics will take on the main role. But the Pentagon had to secure Moscow’s agreement to secure itself new launching grounds and supply bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – as shown by Rumsfeld’s recent visit to Moscow. It is also possible that Russian servicemen could help the Americans get the old Soviet bases in Tajikistan into shape.

Though no one has officially renounced the ABM Treaty as yet, it is time to bid it farewell – it has fulfilled its mission.

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