Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 21, December 1997
Yeltsin Remarks Confuse Nuclear Reductions Issue
On 2 December, addressing a press conference in Stockholm, President Yeltsin stated: "I announce here for the first time that, unilaterally, we will reduce the quantity of our nuclear warheads by one third." The President added: "It is now [time] for us to take this matter to its conclusion and entirely destroy nuclear weapons."
The exact nature and status of the offer was initially unclear - "it is a little difficult for the US government at this point to make an assessment of [the] remarks," in the words of White House spokesperson Mike McCurry (2 December). Officials subsequently sought to make plain that Yeltsin was referring to options under consideration in discussions with the US about the possible extent of long term reductions.
Later that day, Yeltsin's spokesperson, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, told reporters: "The President is not suggesting a new reduction... [I]t does not mean Russia will unilaterally cut nuclear arsenals at the expense of its national security." Yastrzhembsky added:
"The issue is that if we sign START III, Russia might be ready to go in [for] a more radical reduction, naturally in the event of parallel efforts by our partners, and...we are talking about including other nuclear States in the negotiating process."
Preliminary suggestions for the scope of START III suggest that it might leave each side with around 2,500 warheads - a reduction of 1,000 warheads from START II levels. Yastrzhembsky told reporters that "the President's feeling is that it is possible to go further" than the 2,500 mark. A possible additional one-third reduction - to around 1,700 warheads - "has been the initiative Russia has been actively promoting. It [has] existed [at] the level of heads of State and the President has decided to make it public. It's a unilateral initiative and it does not mean a unilateral step to cut weapons."
Naturally, US officials were keen to stress the priority of Russian ratification of START II. According to the State Department's James Rubin (2 December): "Any reductions by the Russians in their nuclear forces would not be something we'd be against... But what we think the central item on our agenda in arms control with Russia is at this moment is the ratification of the START II Treaty."
On 3 December, the confusion prompted the Duma to seek clarification from the Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev. Sergeyev addressed Duma members on 5 December, insisting: "No unilateral reduction is proposed, either by the President or the Defence Ministry. ... Everything will be done on the basis of parity."
Editor's note: in Stockholm on 3 December, President Yeltsin announced: "From 1 January, 1999, Russia will unilaterally reduce - and I am saying this for the first time - by more than 40% its land and naval units, especially in northwestern Russia." The same day, this commitment was phrased more precisely by Foreign Minister Primakov: "Of course...there is a reduction going on in Russia's overall armed forces. But what the President said revealed that specifically in the northwest and in just a year...two units will be cut by 40%, not just land forces but also the naval unit."
Reports: Yeltsin - Russia to cut nuclear arsenal, United Press International, 2 December; Aide disputes Yeltsin's nuke claim, Associated Press, 2 December; Kremlin moves to tone down Yeltsin nuke remark, Reuters, 2 December; Yeltsin's nuclear pledge toned down, Reuters, 2 December; US cautious on Yeltsin nuclear remarks, Reuters, 2 December; Duma to see Minister on proposed arms cut, Reuters, 3 December; Primakov says Yeltsin troop cut only regional, Reuters, 3 December; Russian Minister - no unilateral cuts, United Press International, 5 December; Defense Minister - no unilateral nuclear arms cuts, Reuters, 8 December.
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