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Russia Cautious Over Bush Plans To Dump ABM Treaty, Build "Star Wars"

by Sergei Blagov

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(IPS) MOSCOW -- Russia, once a vocal critic of plans to build a space-based anti-missile shield, saying it could trigger a new arms race, appears to be softening its tone.

Now that President George W. Bush confirmed that the U.S. will abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and develop some sort of a "star wars" defense to protect it and its allies from nuclear-armed "rogue states," the Kremlin is adopting a conciliatory tone.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted Washington's offer of dialogue. Moscow is ready to begin negotiations to ensure "strategic stability."

Before making the announcement May 1, Bush spoke by telephone with Putin. According to an official press release on that day, Putin confirmed Russia's readiness to cooperate with the U.S. to reduce nuclear arsenals and deal with potential threats "without destroying disarmament agreements created in the past 30 years."

A similar view was expressed by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer during a visit to Washington to meet Secretary of State Colin Powell. Fischer said that the ABM Treaty had worked well in the past and should be built upon.

In Russia's view, the ABM Treaty is "inseparable" from the series of interlocking disarmament agreements.

In a statement on May 1, Bush gave no precise details of his missile defense plan, widely known as NMD. He suggested that there would be a multitude of overlapping systems which could intercept missiles in space or upon re-entry into the atmosphere. Later, he said, there could also be "boost-phase" defenses to shoot down missiles within seconds of being fired.

He said the ABM Treaty, long regarded as the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament, was a relic. He signalled that it must either be renegotiated or discarded. Bush was at pains to woo Russia, holding out the prospect of developing missile defenses jointly with Moscow.

The Bush statement had not come as a surprise, Communist leader Guennady Zyuganov said last week. Washington had long ignored many international treaties. Under the circumstances, the Russian government must "actively defend Russia's national interests," the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

Cheaper Topol-M nuclear missiles developed to sustain Russia as a global nuclear power
On May 2, Dmitry Ragozin, the chairman of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, was quoted by Russian TVC channel as saying that the Russian parliament might drop the START II treaty. The START I treaty could also be endangered.

In April last year, the Russian parliament ratified the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II nuclear disarmament accord. The treaty -- for years blocked by Russian Communist and nationalist deputies who believed that it put the country at a disadvantage -- needed parliamentary approval in both countries to go into effect.

START-II, signed in January 1993 by Russia and the United States, provides for a two-thirds reduction in nuclear arsenals. The treaty would leave Russia with 3,000 warheads by 2003, while the United States would be allowed to keep 3,500 nuclear warheads. Once START-II is ratified, the two countries are set to clear the imbalance through a START-III disarmament treaty.

The talks on START-III would focus on reductions to about 2,000 or 2,500 warheads each. The two countries had agreed the "basic parameters" of negotiations on the START-III treaty, which was expected to lower nuclear arsenals. Now it is understood that the Kremlin might suggest a cut to 1,500 warheads on each side, deeper than originally envisaged under START-III.

Moreover, Moscow has agreed with Washington testing the "non- strategic" anti-missile defense systems by agreeing to limits on the speed and range of target missiles that could be used in testing such systems.

In exchange, Washington extended the deadline for Moscow to destroy its strategic nuclear missiles under START-II to Dec. 31, 2007, giving Russia some breathing space. However, it is understood that this deadline virtually coincides with the technical lifespan of Russian warheads supposed to be cut under START-II.

Zyuganov has argued that START II was prepared by "the traitors of the country's national interests," because under this treaty Russia has to destroy the heavy multi-warhead SS-18 "Satan" missiles.

Nonetheless, the Russian generals have hinted they have cheaper ways to defeat an anti-missile system by using some of the Soviet-era blueprints drawn up in response to President Ronald Reagan's plans of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense shield. These include schemes to confuse, evade, and overwhelm a missile-defense system by the use of dummy warheads, space-based "chaff" to simulate warheads, as well as multiple maneuverable warheads.

Of late, the Russian military has been highlighting new nuclear deterrence -- cheaper Topol-M nuclear missiles, developed to sustain Russia as a global nuclear power. The single-warhead Topol-M, 47-ton, solid-fuel intercontinental missiles, with a range of 6,200 miles, will be the new heart of Russia's missile forces, taking the place of heavier, multiple-warhead missiles.

The Topol-M is a lightweight, rugged missile designed to be fired from a vehicle. Its mobility increases its safety from pre-emptive enemy first strikes, unlike silo-based warheads. Russia's military says Topols will continue to be the mainstay of its nuclear forces for at least 20 years.

Russian officials have said they could convert the Topol-M into a multiple-warhead missile. Such multiple-warhead land-based missiles were outlawed by the START II treaty.

According to reports, the Topol-M could carry at least three and perhaps as many as six warheads. Moreover, Russia has the ability, developed in the Soviet era, to deploy a kind of chaff, or deceptive particles, in the nose cone of the Topol-M. When released, the chaff will look like thousands of warheads to the missile-defense system, and it will be difficult to distinguish the real ones from the dummies.

However, it has been a matter of debate whether Russia can afford all these measures. For instance, last year Putin conceded that in the aftermath of breaking ties with the Ukraine over its missile production facilities, Russia would need some $60 billion to manufacture heavy missiles like SS-18. Even the much cheaper Topol-M has been underfunded and is years behind schedule.

Unable to influence Washington's intention to tear up the ABM Treaty, the Kremlin has tried to go around it, rallying other key countries such as China and waging a campaign to sway Western European leaders.

Russia and China, fearing a national U.S. missile shield will negatively affect their own nuclear deterrent, have led the fight to preserve the treaty. Notably, on April 28 Russia, China and three Central Asian states -- Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan -- members of the so-called Shanghai Five group, reconfirmed their support for the 1972 ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of strategic stability, the group said in a communique at the end of talks in Moscow.

Moreover, last April Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said he was not optimistic about the prospects of U.S.-Russian dialogue over Washington's proposed NMD. Ivanov said if faced with the prospect of the United States' exit from the 1972 ABM Treaty, Russia would initiate the creation of a "Euro NMD."

Moscow has tried to rally European support behind an alternative scheme, already submitted to NATO, which stresses diplomatic efforts to defuse any crisis, but could ultimately involve stationing missiles close to countries causing concern. Last February Russia presented its alternative proposal for a mobile anti-missile defense system for Europe.

However, Russian pledges of a Euro NMD appear to remain nothing more than a dream, while the claims that Russia still has the ability to defeat an anti-missile system are yet to be substantiated -- notably against the backdrop of its chronic financial troubles.

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Albion Monitor May 7, 2001 (

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