A Russian Volley over the ABM Treaty

Warns Putin's Chief-of-Staff Alexander Voloshin: A U.S. decision to withdraw is something we will not support under any circumstances

Jockeying for position ahead of the Nov. 13-14 summit in Crawford, Tex., between President Vladimir V. Putin and President George W. Bush, the Russian leader's chief-of-staff, Alexander S. Voloshin, says the Kremlin still thinks it likely that the U.S. will abrogate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. That decision, Voloshin told a small group of American journalists in Moscow on Nov. 8, could undermine closer Russia-U.S. ties.

Voloshin emphasized that Moscow considers the ABM Treaty a key foundation for arms control and that the issue retains its importance even as Russia and the U.S. cooperate on the military campaign in Afghanistan.

A U.S. withdrawal from the treaty "is something we will not support under any circumstances," says Voloshin. "But it is my opinion the U.S. will unilaterally withdraw from the [ABM] treaty.... We don't want to trade over this. Our support for the U.S. in Afghanistan will not be affected.... But the arguments for greater cooperation with the U.S. will gradually disappear."


  The Bush Administration has long argued for a pullout from the ABM treaty, saying it hampers tests necessary for creating a missile-defense shield to guard the U.S. from nuclear attack by "rogue states" like North Korea and Iraq. In recent weeks, as Russia offered to help provide former Soviet military bases in neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for U.S. operations, Putin appeared to be softening his stance on the ABM treaty, too.

Signaling a more flexible position, the Russian President called instead for modifying the treaty to allow testing of the defense system for several more years. That would give Russia and the U.S. more time to hammer out a new post-cold war strategic framework, Putin suggested.

In fact, chances seemed high a few days ago for a compromise agreement to modify the treaty at the Crawford summit, together with deals to cut nuclear stockpiles. But negotiations could be bogging down. It now seems unlikely that any concrete decision will be made, said Voloshin, adding that a U.S. withdrawal from the ABM agreement would probably not be announced at the summit. He said Kremlin overtures on modifying the treaty had met with little response because the U.S. had still not provided Russia with clear explanations on how its missile-defense testing program was being restricted.


  "Our military experts have calculated that for the next five to seven years, the existing conditions set in the ABM treaty do not prevent the U.S. from continuing its testing program," he said. "But if [the U.S. thinks] there are obstacles to this, then tell us.... We are ready to discuss how to change the treaty."

Voloshin said several months had already passed since Russia first proposed a discussion of possible changes, but so far, a bevy of U.S. officials visiting Russia, including U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, have failed to provide the details. "If you want to withdraw [from the ABM treaty], then withdraw," the exasperated Kremlin chief said, but added "this is a mistake." He also said Russia would not meet a withdrawal with "hysterics" and a tough military response. However, the U.S. would have some explaining to do to Europe, which, he said, shares Russia's views on the ABM as a key element of arms control.

Keeping up the pressure over the talks, Voloshin said the U.S. defense shield indeed seemed to be targeted against Russia, as so-called rogue states like North Korea or Iraq won't be capable of developing missiles that could go the distance and strike the U.S. for at least the next 25 to 30 years.


  "It is clear that the missile defense shield cannot be against any other country apart from Russia," he said. "In our opinion, there is no need to spend all this time thinking about how to protect ourselves against each other. We think it would be better, if there is a threat from a third country, to spend the time discussing with Europe and the U.S. ways to create a joint defense system," he said.

Failure to reach agreement on the treaty before a U.S. withdrawal would create a big political headache for Putin, who would have a much harder time convincing the Russian political elite that a policy of rapprochement with the West was justified, said Voloshin.

The main obstacle to hammering out an agreement on ABMs and developing closer ties with the West, according to Voloshin, was the hidebound, cold-war era mentality of many U.S. officials. Russia, he said, was more progressive because of its rapid and, at times, brutal transformation into a market economy over the last 10 years.

The pace of sweeping change has forced the population to adjust quickly to new realities and ways of thinking, he said. Many officials in the U.S., however, "still have cold-war cockroaches in their heads." It's a tough negotiating ploy as the summit approaches. The next move: How the U.S. responds.

By Catherine Belton in Moscow

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht