Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 39, July - August 1999

A Russian Re-Evaluation of the ABM Treaty? Implications for US-Russia Relations and Arms Control in Asia
By Anupam Srivastava


At the G-8 summit in Cologne (Germany) in June, President Yeltsin agreed to the request of President Clinton for Russia to "reconsider" its opposition to modifications of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. An elated Sandy Berger, Clinton's National Security Advisor (NSA), told reporters that this means the two countries have put aside their differences stemming from the Kosovo crisis and are now "back in business." (1) Russian unease over the future of the ABM Treaty has constituted a major obstacle to the ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction (START) II Treaty by the Duma. Although the Yeltsin Administration advocates START II ratification, it does so despite its own severe reservations about possible US deployment of major ballistic missile defenses, which it fears could lend the US a strategic advantage defeating the object of moving towards ever lower levels of nuclear weapons.

As reported elsewhere in this issue of Disarmament Diplomacy, bilateral meetings held in Moscow from 17-19 August failed to produce any breakthroughs on the subject. Indeed, the stated Russian willingness to consider any changes seemed conspicuously absent. A joint statement conceded that specific proposals to "strengthen" the ABM Treaty and "ensure its viability in the future" were not discussed. The Statement also reaffirmed the Treaty as "the cornerstone of strategic stability."

This retrenchment of the Russian stance is understandable, given the preoccupation with elections to the Duma in December, and for the Presidency in June 2000. However, the willingness to discuss the issue, set out in Cologne, is not likely to have disappeared so quickly. At the very least, there is clearly a debate within the Russian Government about how best to proceed over the issue. If the new office-bearers of the Russian Federation agree to the modifications of the ABM Treaty envisaged in Washington, it will pave the way for the United States to deploy the National Missile Defense (NMD) system as early as 2003, and the Theater Missile Defense (TMD) variant soon after. By then, of course, a new US President will be in office. If the new Commander-in-Chief is a Republican, the US stance over the ABM Treaty - reviled as anachronistic and counter-productive to US national security interests by large segments of the Party - is likely to have hardened considerably.

In its essence, the US NMD system currently in its research and development (R&D) stage seeks to create an impregnable anti-missile fortification to defend the continental United States (CONUS). TMD deployment, on the other hand, currently envisaged for East and Southeast Asia (mainly Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan), aims to provide an additional tier of defense for US troops and allies in regional theaters of war against in-coming missiles.

In the US-Russian context, a range of technical as well as politico-strategic issues stemming from this prospect deserve greater examination. Further, the wider implications of the NMD-TMD deployment on the fluid Asian strategic landscape also deserve closer examination. The subsequent analysis hopes to shed some light on the principal variables in this disturbing equation. A central focus of this analysis will be the seeming contradiction in current US policy toward these issues. On the one hand, the US seeks to justify circumventing politico-legal obligations to safeguard national security and larger national interests. On the other hand, it seeks to lead the effort to consolidate multilateral institutions to deal with collective problems. This apparent contradiction could seriously constrain US policy effectiveness in dealing with related arms control issues in the future.

The US-Russia Case

It may be recalled that in late January 1999, Clinton had sent a letter to Yeltsin proposing modifications to the ABM Treaty signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972. As affirmed by Alexander Pikayev, Director of the Moscow branch of the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Russian Federation had vehemently rejected any amendment to the original terms of the ABM treaty. (2) The Russian Duma, debating START II, recalled that when the Soviet Union had signed START I it had issued a unilateral declaration that if the United States withdrew from the ABM, it reserved the right to withdraw from the Treaty. Indeed, Article 9 of the Russian federal law expressly prohibits the entry into force of START II unless the US Senate ratifies the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) pertaining to the ABM, signed in September 1997.

The MOU provides for the legal succession of Russia to all the treaty obligations of the former Soviet Union. Russia alleges that opponents of the MOU in the US Senate want to block its ratification so that Russia's legal obligations as the Successor State to the Soviet Union are rendered null and void. This will enable the United States to circumvent its legal constraints surrounding the ABM treaty, and implement the NMD/TMD systems. It is certainly the view of Senator Jesse Helms (Republican - North Carolina), Chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the 1997 MOU should be rejected, preferably bringing down the whole ABM Treaty with it. Furthermore, Helms is unwilling to see his Committee submit any arms control accords, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), to which he is also opposed, to the full Senate until the MOU is dealt with. No doubt partly in reaction to Helms' violent antipathy to arms control in general, and the ABM Treaty in particular, the Clinton Administration has stated it will submit the MOU following Duma ratification of START II.

When the ABM Treaty was originally negotiated, it differentiated between "strategic" ABM systems and other systems (e.g. tactical missile defense and air-defense) that were not limited except to the extent that they would not have "strategic" capabilities. But aside from the lack of technical clarity on some provisions of the ABM treaty, the need to reconcile this differentiation in the implementation of the US missile defense plans was not adequately resolved by the Nixon, Reagan or Bush administrations. It was the Clinton administration that reached an accord (the MOU) which formally distinguishes between prohibited strategic defense systems and permissible TMD systems.

The ABM Treaty's Standing Consultative Committee (SCC) produced a draft phase-one demarcation agreement (in 1996) that covers lower-velocity TMD systems, with missile interceptor speeds of 3 kms a second (km/s) or less. These systems can be tested and deployed on any platform except space-based interceptors, provided the interceptor is not tested against a target missile with a velocity exceeding 5 km/s or range exceeding 3,500 km. (3) Phase-two agreement, resolved in the September 1997 accord, covers higher-velocity TMD systems, with interceptor speeds in excess of 3 km/s. This is in addition to the proposal (in the September 1997 accord) to "multilateralize" the ABM by including Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. (4) However, both these 1996 and 1997 agreements prohibit the development, testing and deployment of space-based TMD interceptors or similar systems. In this sense, current US TMD deployment plans - and also the use of space-based launchers under the NMD plan - constitute a violation of the ABM Treaty.

Recent developments indicate a growing convergence of technical and political imperatives for an early deployment of the NMD as well as the TMD systems. Over a period spanning three decades and more, the total US budget dedicated to fielding a robust missile defense now exceeds $100 billion. (5) The principal systems being developed include the Army's THAAD (Theater High Altitude Area Defense) and the Navy's NTWD (Navy Theater-Wide Defense).

Aside from the financial dimension of the enormity of the task, technical impediments have continued to dog the effort to field such a system. Until recently, the Pentagon and the research laboratories had failed to demonstrate that this system might actually work in outdoor battle conditions. Under simulated conditions, these programs had managed a 45% strike rate against short-range missiles, and 15% against longer-range missiles, particularly those that had crossed the "boost phase" of their flights. Then a breakthrough was reported on 10 June, 1999, when the first long-range missile was successfully intercepted by the THAAD system in outdoor conditions, followed by another success in early August (see this issue for details and reaction).

This breakthrough has provided added ammunition to the proponents of the NMD system in Washington. The political fate of the program had languished following the conclusion of the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 1995 that the United States would face no direct ballistic missile threat before 2010. (6) Overturning that prognosis, the Congress-sanctioned Rumsfeld Commission Report (released on 15 July, 1998) warned that such a threat is imminent and could come with little or no warning. (7) Buoyed by this report, the proponents of the NMD succeeded in getting the US House of Representatives to adopt the final version of the legislation (H.R. 4) on 20 May, 1999 that authorizes establishing an NMD as soon as it becomes technologically possible, with two provisos: such deployment must be commensurate with the US objective of seeking to negotiate nuclear arms reductions with Russia; and funding for the system must be secured through the usual authorization procedures. In March, the US Senate approved a companion measure, the Cochran-Inouye National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (S. 269).

On 23 July, President Clinton signed H.R. 4 into law. In a statement obviously intended to reassure Moscow, Clinton stressed the importance of the to provisos: "By specifying that any NMD deployment must be subject to [authorization procedures]...the legislation makes clear that no decision on deployment has been made. ... [The legislation also reaffirms] my Administration's position that our national missile defense policy must take into account our arms control and nuclear non-proliferation objectives." (See this issue for the full text of Clinton's statement.) Russia, however, expressed itself appalled by Clinton's signing of the Act, and expressed grave reservations about the rush of developments towards deployment. The Clinton Administration has set itself a deadline of no later than the end of June next year to decide whether to proceed with an NMD system. In effect, as a decision to proceed is highly likely, June 2000 is also the deadline for seeking to agree ABM Treaty modifications with Russia.

While technical obstacles to establishing a robust NMD-TMD system have by no means been overcome by a couple of missile interceptions, the politico-legal challenge would be substantially overcome if Russia were to agree to the proposed amendments to the Treaty. As we have seen, given the opposition to Yeltsin in the Duma such an outcome appears remote in the near term. However, the issue has to be seen in the broader context of a blunt and unpalatable fact: Russia's continued economic difficulties are greatly increasing its dependence on external financial assistance. It desperately needs the next tranche of the $4.56 billion loan from the IMF. On 23 June, former Prime Minister Stepashin (since replaced by Vladimir Putin, former Secretary of the Security Council) announced the Russian defense budget for FY 1999-2000. In constant US dollars, this comes to $6.7 billion, and comprises 28% of the total budgetary outlay. That means the aggregate Russian budget (FY 1999-2000) is only about $24 billion, a paltry sum by the standards of even some developing economies - the amount requested in the US FY 2000 Defense Authorization Bill is $289 billion. Clearly then, continued economic woes progressively constrain Russian ability to assert itself either within the "post-Soviet" space or in its relations with the West and the rest.

Beyond the financial constraints, if Russia agrees to proceed with further arms reduction envisaged under START III (assuming the ratification of START II), it will have to reduce its stockpile of strategic nuclear arsenal to between 2,000-2,500 warheads - the preferred US target - and between 1,000-1,500 warheads - the reported Russian target. (8) In deployment terms - to take the 2,000-2,500 level - this will mean fielding no more than about 600 MIRV-ed ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple, independently-targetable warheads) for the entire Russian nuclear force. (9) Given Russia's inability to commit adequate financial resources, even this reduced force appears difficult to maintain at adequate operational readiness standards. (10) In the near- to medium- term, this is likely to worsen Russian power asymmetry against not only the United States but also China. On a broader plane, Russia's inability to impede the eastward expansion of NATO has forced it to turn its attention southward, consolidating its strategic relationship with China and with India.

Wider Implications for Asia

On August 13, 1999, Japan's cabinet endorsed a plan to jointly research a missile defense system with the United States, further energizing the TMD debate. (10) This decision closely followed, though was not necessarily spurred by, China's flight test on August 3rd of its Dong Feng (East Wind) series surface-to-surface missile (DF-31). The missile, which was launched from Wuzhai test range in Shanxi and landed in Taklimakan desert in Xinjiang region, has a maximum range of 8,000 km, but was tested up to 3,000 km. Although the official Xinhua news agency declined to give details, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong (Wen Wei Po) claimed that "to date, there is no weapon in the world that can intercept such a missile, …[and] the NMD and TMD systems developed by the US were merely low-altitude missile defense systems." (11)

Further, as the Cox Commission report released on 25 May reported, China has already acquired the designs of the latest US nuclear device, the W-88, whose small size and compact design makes it immeasurably easier in mounting on the cone of the ICBMs. Presumably then, China will soon acquire diversified (including MIRV-ed) delivery capability to strike strategic targets in the United States, and establish critical operational advantages over the Russian nuclear force. Although China has no locus standii on the issue, it has vociferously supported preservation of the ABM treaty in its present form, and opposed deployment of TMD systems in Asia, particularly in Taiwan. (12) The current strain in Beijing-Washington ties is not limited to the charges leveled in the Cox report. China remained opposed to the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, and calibrated its domestic protest against the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade for maximum leverage. The spectre of NATO enlarging its mission beyond the territory of its members makes China very uneasy about possible US/NATO intervention in Taiwan or Tibet.

Equally significant as its hardening stance in its immediate neighbourhood, China's relations with South Asia are exhibiting considerable finesse. During the May-July conflict in Kashmir, it quietly cautioned Pakistan against escalation and assured India of continued peace, enabling Indian troops to be re-deployed away from the Chinese border to the Pakistani border. The 14-15 June meeting between India's Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and his counterpart Tang Xiaquan resulted in the agreement to set up a formal "security mechanism" for speedy implementation of the confidence-building measures (CBMs) envisaged in the Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993. Soon after, the 28-30 June visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resulted in the Sino-Pakistan decision to jointly develop the Chinese Super-7 fighter aircraft. Similarly, Beijing has thus far elected to withhold comment on the 17 August release of India's "Draft Nuclear Doctrine" which seeks to establish a "survivable" second strike capability. (13)


Beijing's policies toward South Asia are clearly geared toward emerging as an alternate interlocutor, in addition to constraining Washington's latitude for politico-diplomatic manoeuvring. While this finesse might augment Beijing's leverage in its myriad dealings with Washington, China's relentless ascension in the Asian strategic calculus is triggering warning signals across the region. The United States needs to better understand this dynamic equilibrium in Asia. At a minimum, until China has become a significant stakeholder in the stability of the international system, precipitous moves such as the proposed TMD deployment might undermine the fragile Asian balance of power. Further, "defensive" deployments such as a TMD system will worsen the existing power asymmetry in the region and lead to a new round of arms racing. It will also undermine the US ability to constrain Russia, for instance, from delivering anti-missile systems (the S-300PMU-1 and S-300V) to India, in turn precipitating missile build-up by Pakistan.

In a larger sense, the United States should recognize that its policies, especially toward Asia, need to be cast in more holistic terms. Decisions such as NMD-TMD deployment, even at the cost of amending the ABM, will progressively worsen its relationship with Russia and China, two countries that are vital to the evolving security architecture of Asia. Since Asia is likely to remain the locus of economic dynamism in the coming decades, US interests in the region go well beyond the traditional notions of security. As such, basing its defense policy on worst case assessment of threats will precipitate a reactive dynamic in Asia that will ultimately inhibit US strategic relevance in the region. If the United States wishes to restore credibility to the concept of multilateralism, it must strive to lead by example.

Notes and References

  1. Jane Perlez, "US and Russians Strive to Repair Frayed Relations," The New York Times, 21 June, 1999. For an incisive account of steps necessary for US/Russian nuclear arms reduction and ABM-compliant anti-missile deployments, see Thomas W. Graham Jr. and Alexander S. Yereskovsky, "Viewpoint," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12 July, 1999.
  2. Alexander Pikayev, "A New Low in US-Russian Relations," Proliferation Brief, [Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace], vol.2, no.1, 3 February, 1999.
  3. John Pike, "Ballistic Missile Defense: Is the US `Rushing to Failure?', Arms Control Today, April 1998, p.10.
  4. See, for instance, James H. Anderson, "The Senate's Opportunity to Get Serious About Missile Defense," Executive Memorandum [Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation], no.551, 8 September, 1998.
  5. By 1996, the budget for NMD alone, in its various dispensations, exceeded $99b since its inception in 1963. See, for instance, Joseph Cirincione and Frank von Hippel, eds., The Last Fifteen Minutes: Ballistic Missile Defense in Perspective [Washington, DC: Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, May 1996], and later Proliferation Briefs by Joe Cirincione. This is in addition to the vast amounts spent on the various TMD systems now being developed.
  6. For a critique of the NIE and subsequent developments, see Baker Spring, "Maintaining Momentum for Missile Defense," Backgrounder [The Heritage Foundation], No. 1288, 1 June, 1999.
  7. Report of the Commission To Assess The Ballistic Missile Threat To The United States (15 July, 1998) [Pursuant to Public Law 104-201, the National Defense Authorization Act, FY 1997, Section 1321(g), 104th Congress, US Government].
  8. "US and Soviet/Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces," Arms Control Today, March 1999.
  9. For a comprehensive review of recent Russian nuclear policy developments, see PIR Arms Control Letters [Moscow: Center for Policy Studies in Russia], 9 June, 1999.
  10. See, for instance, "Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, End of 1998" [NRDC Nuclear Notebook], The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, vol.55, no.2, March/April 1999.
  11. "Japan, US to develop joint missile defense," The Times of India, New Delhi, 14 August, 1999.
  12. "China tests new ballistic missile," reported by Press Trust of India, 3 August, 1999.
  13. For an official account of the Chinese position, see "Some Thoughts on Non-Proliferation", Statement of Ambassador Sha Zukang, Director-General, Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, Seventh Annual Non-Proliferation Conference [Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace], January 12, 1999.

Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine, August 17, 1999 http://www.indiagov.org/govt/nucl.htm.

Dr. Anupam Srivastava is the Director of the South Asia Program and Senior Research Associate at the Center for International Trade and Security, University of Georgia, USA.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page