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November 14, 2001
Putin - Bush Summit: ABM-SOW Deal Fails
The absence of a separate document on the SOW - ABM problem is the best indicator of the fact that - so far - there have been no new developments in this area

By: Dmitry Gornostayev

After meeting with Vladimir Putin in the White House, George Bush announced the U.S. decision to reduce the number of nuclear warheads to 1,700-2,200. This would be done unilaterally, but Mr. Bush made it clear that there were prospects for reaching a specific joint agreement on reductions in strategic offensive weapons.

Naturally, Vladimir Putin welcomed the decision. Be that as it may, any cut in nuclear weapons is an important positive development. The president of Russia also stated that Moscow would seek to react appropriately to the reduction, but made an additional remark that illustrated the subtle nuances between the respective Russian and U.S. approaches to the problem. He emphasized the fact that Moscow views progress in SOW matters primarily in terms of having specific agreements on radical reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States in black and white. "The Russian side is prepared to put all agreements in treaty form, taking into account control and verification issues," he said.

In fact, a unilateral reduction, no matter how pacific, involves no obligations. In other words, Mr. Bush is free today to reduce the nuclear arsenal, while tomorrow he or the next U.S. president will be equally free to boost the arsenal to its present or, theoretically, even higher levels. Moreover, no one will be able to verify whether or not the weapons have been reduced at all, and if they have, whether or not this has taken place within previously declared parameters.

It is for this reason that Mr. Putin emphasizes the importance of having the agreements in black and white in the form of legally binding documents or a treaty on new levels of strategic offensive weapons reductions. Although Mr. Bush reiterated his claim that there was no need for signing any documents and that partners should take his word for it as it supposedly stemmed from the new nature of agreements, Mr. Putin managed to convince his U.S. counterpart not to be excessively insistent in that respect, with George Bush finally implying that a signed agreement of this sort might indeed eventually come to pass. It must be noted, however, that the hint was rather vague.

As for the ABM issue, which is generating even greater fissures in Russian - U.S. relations, it, in effect, is stuck in the same point of discussion: both Vladimir Putin and George Bush reiterated their respective positions, and, as during their previous meetings, announced again that they were prepared to continue consultations on strategic defense and the ABM Treaty "within the broad framework of new strategic relations."

The absence of a separate document on the SOW-ABM problem is the best indicator of the fact that - so far - there have been no new developments in this area. The topic figures only in a three-page joint presidential statement on new relations between Russia and the United States, where it occupies a mere eight lines.

This means the strategic deal that American journalists predicted on the eve of the summit with some prodding from the State Department and the Pentagon has failed to materialize: the ABM Treaty has not been exchanged for strategic arms reductions.

Although the United States announced its readiness to cut its nuclear arsenal without getting anything tangible in return, it did so in such a way so as to be able to reclaim its "gift" at any time. The ABM Treaty lives on, although George W. Bush has reiterated Washington's desire to remove a restriction allegedly standing in the way of Washington's efforts to maintain national security at an adequate level. It is fair to assume that the United States has decided to work toward a unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty, although it sees this option as far less pleasant than the opportunity to get rid of the Treaty together with Russia.

Be that as it may, the Washington talks on strategic stability boil down to the following. First, the ABM Treaty is still in force as the Americans continue their movement toward withdrawing from it. Meanwhile, Russia remains committed to its fundamental position, and if the ABM Treaty is buried, Moscow will take no part in the funeral. That the status quo will be maintained can be seen as a short-term compromise on the issue.

Second. The United States has announced its readiness to cut its strategic arms down to 1,700-2000 warheads, but nobody will be allowed to verify the cuts. As far as Russia is concerned, this is a positive move but one that was planned some time ago: a promise to cut the country's nuclear arsenal was contained in Bush's election platform. Besides, the proposed cuts are somewhat smaller than the level suggested by Moscow (it will be recalled that Vladimir Putin has suggested to the United States that each side cut its strategic arms down to a level below 1,500 warheads).

Third. The two sides will continue consultations on the related issues of defensive and offensive strategic arms. However, it is already possible to predict that they will be very difficult, given that the 1972 ABM Treaty remains the main stumbling block of all discussions.

In short, whereas Moscow and Washington have achieved a good deal of understanding on nearly all issues on the Russia - U.S. agenda (minor differences will always crop up but they can be resolved in the regular course of work), they have failed to achieve rapprochement on strategic issues per se.

A glimmer of hope may emerge before the two leaders' next meeting or during Bush's forthcoming visit to Russia (Vladimir Putin has invited the American president to visit Moscow for formal negotiations and go to St. Petersburg for informal contacts during "the White Nights" there. More daylight might help the presidents to arrive at a compromise - but only on condition that the Americans do not make unilateral moves to leave the ABM Treaty before next summer.

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