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Moscow Times
November 15, 2001
Arms Treaties Old Hat?
By Pavel Felgenhauer

In the early 1970s in the times of detente when President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev met to sign bundles of arms control treaties and other cooperation agreements, U.S. VIPs found time to go hunting with Brezhnev and otherwise socialize. This week's summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin also has an extensive social program, but in many other respects it differs from the summits of the past.

Brezhnev and Nixon met and signed treaties to formalize Russian-American global rivalry. Moscow and Washington remained enemies, but arms control based on mutual recognition of strategic parity made the Cold war contest more predictable.

Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s, Moscow and Washington have publicly insisted they are not enemies anymore. But the concept of strategic parity lived on and was considered the basis of world stability. In fact, as Russia became weaker and weaker, Russian generals and diplomats cherished strategic nuclear parity with the United States more than before, as one of the last vestiges of the collapsed Soviet Union.

Since 1999, Washington has tried to woo Moscow into accepting changes in the 1972 Anti-Ballistics Missile Treaty that would allow the United States to deploy a limited national missile defense system. But in endless consultations Russian diplomats said nyet to each and every U.S. proposal.

As the talks got bogged down, U.S. officials threatened to abandon the treaty if Moscow did not agree to amend the ABM treaty soon. Russian officials replied that they were fully aware of the threat, but did not believe Moscow should help provide the United States with a face-saving formula that would allow NMD and at the same time continue the pretence that the ABM Treaty was still in force.

A Russian deputy foreign minister (still in service today) told me just a year and a half ago: "The U.S. Senate has recently killed the nuclear test ban treaty. Now the Americans want to kill the ABM Treaty. We believe that Russia should not be an accomplice in such crimes against humanity. The international community should clearly see that the United States is the villain, that America is undermining arms control and international stability."

Today, Putin continues to stress that Russia's position regarding ABM has not changed. However, this statement seems to be a propaganda ploy for domestic consumption. In reality, it is Moscow that's most active today in seeking a face-saving formula to allow NMD, while at the same time pretending that the ABM Treaty is still standing.

Arms control, as established by Brezhnev and Nixon, was based on strategic parity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, strategic equality disappeared for good and arms control continued to live on without any true substance.

To fill this void Russia invented the multipolar world concept and tried to cobble together a worldwide anti-U.S. coalition with China, India and European nations dissatisfied with U.S. unilateralism. Any statement that ABM was important, made by any politician from any country was greeted in Moscow with an ovation. However, now Putin has clearly understood that attempts to rally support for ABM do not much benefit Russia.

German or French leaders may say that ABM is important, however they do not reward Russia for its stand against U.S. unilateralism with, for example, debt write-offs. Recent blunt demands by strategic partners like India and China for Russia to hand over sensitive military technologies have, it seems, forced Putin to realize that if a multipolar world were actually established, Russia would not be its spiritual leader.

Russia will not sever its cordial relations with India or China, but its foreign policy emphasis has clearly changed. Today Putin says that he wants to be a strategic ally of the United States. Putin's summit with Bush is now more like a summit between two Western leaders where current policies are harmonized, than an old-style meeting between East and West, where treaties were signed to prevent the sides from killing each other by mistake.

Bush and Putin have proposed cutting their nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each, however this is not an arms control treaty, but rather an informal agreement. Arms control as we have known it since the 1970s is virtually dead. Many in Moscow and in Washington have still not reconciled themselves to the fact, and many may try to resist the trend. However, arms control treaties simply cannot exist between allies, especially if one is much weaker than the other.

If Putin stays his present course, the excitement of detente will never return and U.S.-Russian summits will get less and less exciting with each meeting.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.

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