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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 44, March 2000

ABM Treaty Revision: A Challenge to Russian Security
By Alexander A. Pikayev

The ABM Deadlock

In January 1999 the Clinton Administration approached Moscow with a request to modify the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to permit US deployment of a limited National Missile Defense (NMD) system aimed at protecting US national territory from missile attacks by potential nuclear proliferators. In June 1999 President Yeltsin agreed to commence bilateral talks on maintaining the ABM Treaty in a new security environment. In parallel, the United States and Russia agreed to continue talks on a new START III agreement, which would establish lower strategic nuclear missile ceilings for both countries compared with those imposed by the existing START II Treaty concluded in January 1993, but which has still not entered into force. The talks started in August 1999 but since then they have not shown any evidence of progress.

The disagreements between the two parties are still deep, with each interpreting the subject of the ABM talks very differently. While the US seeks to change the ABM Treaty, Russia refuses to discuss the changes at all and, on numerous occasions, has expressed its strong commitment to the existing language of the document. Despite growing speculations that the new Russian administration of Vladimir Putin might agree under certain conditions with the US proposals, there is little practical evidence that Moscow has decided to modify its position in accordance with American requests.

In a spirit of growing US unilateralism, Washington stated that if Russia continues opposing ABM Treaty modification, the United States would have to withdraw from it unilaterally - giving notification six months in advance. If the Clinton Administration makes a decision on NMD deployment in June 2000, as expected, it might notify Russia of its intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty as early as November 2000 - six months before ground work on a new ABM site in Alaska is due to begin. The ABM Treaty directly prohibits ABM deployments in areas other than around the national capital or ICBM bases - none of which are located in Alaska.

In a reaction to this de facto US ultimatum, the Russian military threatened on several occasions to make reciprocal withdrawals. According to these threats, if the United States withdraws from the ABM Treaty, Moscow would not be able to implement START II. The Treaty's very intrusive and unique verification regime could also be abandoned because it would be difficult to maintain strategic nuclear deployments at levels higher than that stipulated by the existing START I Treaty for economic reasons. Finally, the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits deployment of all US and Russian land-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometres, might also unravel. Moreover, in early 2000 the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would damage the bilateral strategic arms control process, as well as the non-proliferation regime.

So why is Russia so adamantly opposed to US NMD plans? Would modification of the ABM Treaty in the limited form recently sought by the United States lead to the collapse of the entire US-Russian strategic arms control regime, which has survived much worse periods of bilateral relations during the past thirty years? Especially since the United States has declared that its planned NMD deployments would be directed against would-be proliferators in the developing world and would be incapable of overcoming Russia's still powerful strategic nuclear deterrent.

Use It or Lose It

There are concerns in Moscow that the United States has something more in mind than defending its national territory against would-be proliferators in the developing world. Even in the initial stage, the Alaskan ABM site would be capable of intercepting Russian missiles launched in a retaliatory strike and aimed at the US West Coast. The second NMD site, which was to be deployed by 2010 in the North East of the United States, could hit Russian missiles on their way towards the US East Coast. Besides this, radar facilities outside US territory - in Thule, Greenland, and RAF Fylingdales in Britain - are to be modernised in violation of Article XI of the ABM Treaty. If modernised, these radar stations will add somewhat to the effectiveness of the Alaskan ABM system, but could contribute more in terms of targeting Russian missiles launched from the Barents Sea and Western Russia.

Russian experts are also concerned that recent 'limited' US NMD plans include deployments that could act as a base for future radical expansion of the NMD system so as to make it capable of reliably intercepting significant numbers of ballistic missiles. Particularly, Washington plans to orbit space-based ABM sensors, which might considerably improve targetting and tracking capabilities. Once an effective surveillance, acquisition, targeting and kill assessment system is established, capable of dealing with hundreds of missiles, it would not be too difficult to produce and deploy interceptors to cope with large-scale missile attack. Even if the number of Washington's deployed interceptors is limited by a modified ABM Treaty, US deployments could possibly increase quite rapidly with new production. This would also provide Washington with significant breakout capability, if it decides to abandon the Treaty.

Current levels of Russian strategic nuclear forces are large enough to penetrate a potential limited US NMD. However, their size will significantly decline in future due to financial constraints. Some experts even predict that they might drop below a thousand deployed strategic warheads. Furthermore, as a result of NATO's eastward enlargement and US dominance in submarine warfare, Russia's nuclear forces will become increasingly vulnerable to a potentially disarming first strike. As a result, a classic situation of instability would emerge: the Kremlin would fear that its future modest nuclear forces could be considerably reduced in a first strike, and the retaliatory strike - made by the few surviving weapons - could be successfully intercepted even by a limited and relatively ineffective US NMD system. 'Use it or lose it' incentives could then threaten strategic stability.

These two factors: US NMD deployments together with increased capabilities to destroy Russian missiles during their initial flight phase might create a situation in which even 200 NMD interceptors would be sufficient to undermine Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent, or even at the 1,500 levels recently sought by Russia through START III. This would require Moscow to introduce counter-measures aimed at penetrating any future US NMD system. These measures might hypothetically include:

  • increasing overall ceilings for deployed strategic forces;
  • maintaining hair trigger alert;
  • re-MIRV-ing existing missiles and deploying decoys on them;
  • deploying manoeuverable warheads able to escape collision with an interceptor;
  • resuming anti-satellite programmes aimed at neutralizing space-based NMD components;
  • resuming routine patrol of submarines in open seas in order to circumvent the US NMD system oriented to the North; and
  • probably, relying more on air breathing delivery vehicles (cruise missiles and aircraft), which are harder for ABM defences to hit.
All these measures will force Russia to increase spending on its strategic forces modernisation and could cause additional complications for the domestic treasury. Certainly, Russia cannot afford to launch a new arms race in response to US NMD deployments. However, its strategic nuclear forces would be reduced more slowly, with higher ceilings, and in a less predictable manner than otherwise.

Strategic Relations

Another set of security concerns relate to China. In reaction to US plans to deploy an NMD system together with a TMD system in the Western Pacific, Beijing has adopted a US$10 billion package for a new nuclear build-up. China is reportedly developing two new types of ballistic missile; one designed for use against the United States, and the second against Russia. In recent years, Beijing is thought to have only had about two-dozen ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets in North America, which could be intercepted by even a modest NMD system. In order to maintain the credibility of its nuclear deterrent, China will have to significantly increase the number of these forces, MIRV-ing them and paying more attention to developing sea-based deployments in order to counter the deployment of the mooted NMD and TMD systems.

Such developments would be detrimental not only for the US, but also for Russia. Currently, the predominance of Chinese conventional weapons vis-à-vis the vast but sparsely populated Russian Far East is balanced by Moscow's superiority in nuclear weapons. China's nuclear build-up might considerably erode this superiority, further weakening Russia's position in the Far East. This might press Moscow to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which prohibits deployments of intermediate-range missiles (which are best suited for executing missions in continental theatres of military operations).

More seriously, US NMD plans pose new technological challenges for Russia, which it cannot afford to meet in its current economic situation. The size of the Russian economy is similar to that of the Netherlands, a country with a population that is ten times smaller. This effectively prevents Moscow from attempting to enter a new technological arms race with a much wealthier United States and forces Russia into seeking joint efforts with other nuclear-armed powers in order to maintain the existing gap in power relations, and to avoid it widening any further. Taking into account the limitation that Moscow faces in potential military co-operation with the European Union (EU) and Japan, this means that China and possibly India may be the only available alternative military 'allies' with which Russia could forge a new relationship (although consolidating such a relationship with China or India cannot be taken for granted either). Expanding co-operation with Beijing and New Delhi in the area of military high-tech would mean Russia embarking on a radically new and complex geopolitical trajectory, contrary to its own perception of itself as a European nation. Moreover, even within such a new alliance Russia could not realistically expect to play an equal role and could be forced to revise its national security priorities in accordance with less familiar Chinese paradigms.

Future Arms Control Policy

In Russia, there are two basic schools of thought on US plans to modify the ABM Treaty. Advocates of a co-operative approach with the United States think that Moscow should conditionally agree the Treaty modification sought by Washington. According to this view, such an approach would help to create a more favourable environment for developing Russo-Western co-operation. In such an environment, it might be easier for Russia to gain satisfactory deals on a number of important issues ranging from the restructuring of foreign debt and membership of the Paris club of sovereign creditors to breaking the existing deadlock in bilateral strategic nuclear arms control. In particular, advocates of this approach want to trade-off Russian agreement for ABM Treaty modification in exchange for US concessions which would help to alleviate Russian concerns over certain provisions of START II such as lower warhead deployment ceilings and disparity in rapid breakout capabilities. Some even assume that ABM Treaty modification could open the

door for US-Russian co-operation in the anti-missile arena itself, while also providing new contracts for Russia's cash-starved defence industry.

The other school can be characterised as unilateralists who think that, with the growing asymmetry in US-Russian nuclear relations, neither side has a real interest in maintaining the current formal bilateral strategic arms control regime. The unilateralists' logic is based on an assumption that, given growing US predominance, it is harder for Russia to strike a fair deal in the negotiations. In its present weakened position, Moscow has no option but to agree to almost all US demands, while in return it receives only minor concessions. As a result, they argue, Russia concluded a series of flawed agreements in the 1990s, which further complicated the country's difficult situation.

The unilateralists accept that without arms control agreements, Russia would have to give up strategic nuclear numerical parity with the United States. While Moscow is financially unable to maintain its strategic forces at START I and II levels, Washington has no significant financial restriction on remaining at around the START I de facto level of 8,000 deployed warheads. However, according to the unilateralists, neither would these treaties maintain parity. If the START II ban on MIRV-ed ICBMs was to be preserved, parity could not be maintained even under the mooted START III ceiling of 2,500. Besides that, the existing regime significantly limits Russia's freedom of action in determining the structure and rate of decommissioning of its nuclear systems. This leads to a situation in which Russia might be weaker with these treaties than without them.

The unilateralists also question the value of the negotiated approach on the grounds that US policy is inconsistent and changes so frequently that the agreements made become obsolete even before they enter into force. First, they say, agreement can be very difficult to achieve. The US side does not seem prepared to pay a high enough price for Russian agreement to ABM Treaty modifications. Here they cite the January 2000 US proposals in which Washington rejected Russian proposals to discuss a lower START III limit of 1,500. The United States also reportedly proposed to broaden the downloading option by extending it on Sea-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). Both these steps move in the opposite direction to that sought by Russia on START III.

Secondly, unilateralist opponents of the co-operative approach argue that there is no guarantee that any agreement reached would ever enter into force. The ABM Treaty demarcation agreements, which were negotiated with so many difficulties in 1993-97, have still not been ratified by the US Senate, which openly expressed its disapproval of them.

Thirdly, there are concerns that even if a deal is struck with the Clinton Administration, the next US administration could decide to further reassess US ABM policy. The probability of such a reassessment remains high even with recent US NMD plans, which call for three phases of anti-missile defence deployments. In negotiating terms this could mean that even if Russia convinces Washington to accept minimal ABM Treaty modifications which are compatible with US phase I NMD deployments, the US could subsequently change its mind and then approach Russia with new requests for even more substantial modifications. If these were to be successful, the US would only be encouraged to repeat the pattern. Thus, Russia's agreement to initial limited ABM Treaty modifications might not ultimately limit further US deployments. In reality, a first agreement would only open the door to several years of painful follow-on modification talks.

It is also possible that the NMD architecture envisaged by the Clinton Administration might be revised later this decade. Experience in the 1990s has demonstrated that US ABM policy is inconsistent and highly controversial. In 1992 the United States and Russia in fact discussed very radical changes to the ABM Treaty, which, if implemented, would have permitted almost unrestricted deployment of ABM systems, including in space. In early 1993 the Clinton Administration considerably altered US ABM policy, abandoned the Reagan-Bush era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), made TMD its main focus and offered Russia talks on demarcating which tests would and would not be permitted within the existing ABM Treaty framework. Negotiations were successfully completed by late 1997. But by January 1999 Washington approached Russia with new proposals to modify the ABM Treaty itself.

As a result, by taking a co-operative approach to ABM Treaty modification Russia failed to deliver for itself two basic benefits normally associated with arms control agreements. Firstly, there was now the real risk that Moscow might be repeatedly asked by Washington to modify the existing ABM regime in order to adapt it to changes in domestic NMD plans. Given the growing asymmetry in bilateral relations the United States would be reluctant to make any significant concessions to Russia on such moves. Therefore, instead of influencing US ABM deployments, as proponents of co-operation had hoped, the negotiated modification process could only put Moscow into the humiliating position of having to acquiesce to US demands - a situation derisively deemed by some as 'Russia à-la-carte'.

Secondly, an ABM Treaty modification agreement would not make US NMD policy any more consistent. As a consequence, any agreement would fail to give the Kremlin better predictability or certainty, as might normally be expected from the arms control process. On the contrary, through such talks Russia itself might be forced to adapt its own nuclear and ABM policy to changeable and uncertain US plans - a luxury Russia cannot afford given its severe financial constraints.

Prospects for a Deal?

The existing deadlock in bilateral talks, largely provoked by the tough US START III negotiating position, has significantly narrowed freedom of manoeuvre for Russian supporters of ABM Treaty modification and a START III deal. Therefore, to date, Moscow's traditional diplomatic and military establishment has continued to firmly and unanimously reject any modification of the ABM Treaty.

At the same time there are some Russian politicians who have hinted that they would be willing to look at ABM Treaty modification as a bargaining chip for gaining political support from Washington. The future administration of Vladimir Putin, currently Acting President, might also seek a broader deal than one solely focussed on arms control, which also for example, involved debt restructuring and the renewal of suspended IMF loans. During a meeting between Acting President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Moscow in late January 2000, the new Kremlin leader did not reject the idea of treaty modification as bluntly as he dismissed US appeals to change Russia's policy on the war in Chechnya. Furthermore, in February the Secretary of Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, while visiting Washington, made remarks which were interpreted as positive towards US plans to transfer the sole permitted US ABM deployment area from North Dakota to Alaska.

So far Vladimir Putin has carefully avoided making any clear promises on ABM Treaty modification. Indeed, prospects for a more co-operative approach are severely limited by various dilemmas. Accepting ABM Treaty modification could undermine Russian relations with China, which feverishly opposes US NMD plans. Together with Beijing, Moscow has orchestrated its own international campaign against US NMD deployments. To agree now to ABM Treaty modification would make Russia vulnerable to accusations of inconsistency and would further erode Moscow's international standing.

It is also unclear whether a US-Russian NMD deal could really contribute to solving the problem of Russian debt. EU countries are Russia's main creditors, primarily Germany. Berlin and Paris have already notified Moscow that they are not prepared to write-off any part of the Soviet Union's debt inherited by Russia. Furthermore, it is also unclear whether or not the White House pressed its European allies as part of its attempt to strike an ABM deal with the Kremlin. Another issue is whether possible US pressure would be enough to convince the Europeans, especially given their own concerns about US NMD plans.

Resuming tranches from the already approved but currently frozen IMF loans to Russia could also be very hard to achieve. US-EU disagreements over candidates for the position of IMF Executive Director, together with Republican criticism of Clinton's policy towards the IMF, and the Fund's own activities, have established a negative background for discussing the resumption of the Russian loans.

Finally, the Kremlin needs to consolidate its domestic power in order to overcome strong opposition against Treaty modification. In 1999 decision-making on arms control issues shifted further towards the military, which enjoys a growing domestic political role and popularity. This is mainly due to a public perception that it has conducted a relatively successful war in Chechnya and that it deftly took control of Pristina airport before NATO troops could during the last days of the war in Kosovo. For similar reasons, the balance of power inside the Russian military establishment increasingly favours more conservative and anti-Western groups. There are now grounds to believe that by early 2000 the military had become strong enough to block any decision they oppose, including ABM Treaty modification. Certainly, the early resignation of a weak President Yeltsin and the election of a younger and more dynamic Vladimir Putin will change the situation and the Kremlin will do its best to reclaim its leading role in formulating the country's national security policy.

However, this cannot happen overnight and will be difficult to achieve before June 2000, when the Clinton Administration is due to make a decision on future US NMD deployments. If this happens, the prospects for co-operative ABM Treaty revision will diminish further.

Alexander A. Pikayev Co-Director of the Carnegie Non-Proliferation project and is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

Editor's note: see Parliamentary Update, Documents & Sources and News Review for more in-depth coverage of NMD and related issues.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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