Russia’s Beef with Regional Arms Control

Russia’s Beef with Regional Arms Control

Russia has suspended its participation in a treaty on conventional arms and voiced opposition to a missile shield in its backyard. Is a new era of mutual hostility in the making?

Last updated July 16, 2007 8:00 am (EST)

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The United States and Russia have clashed repeatedly over the years on arms control and other security concerns in Eastern Europe. In one recent provocation, President Vladimir Putin announced plans to suspend Russia’s obligations under the 1990 Convention Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Also, a U.S. blueprint to deploy anti-ballistic missiles and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic has drawn sharp criticism from the Kremlin. Washington says the missile shield is aimed at Iran and North Korea, not Russia. But Moscow fears the missile defense plan will render its aging nuclear arsenal even more obsolete. Putin has said the staging of a missile defense system would provoke a “new arms race” and threatened to retaliate by pointing Russia’s nuclear missiles at European cities.

Soviet-Era Acronym Soup

The CFE treaty was negotiated between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe as a means of enhancing arms control between the two sides. Passed in 1990, the treaty established equal quotas on the number of battle tanks, heavy artillery, and combat aircraft deployed west of the Urals, and has been a cornerstone of the post-Cold War framework for European security. The trouble is that the treaty applies only to members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which is long defunct. Hence, some say the CFE is a vestige of a bygone era that has lost its relevance, and add that Russia’s conventional forces have deteriorated since its signing and fall short of the quotas set. The treaty was later revised in Istanbul in 1999 and signed by thirty states but only a few, including Russia, have ratified it; thus, the adapted CFE version has never come into force. Regardless, writes the Wall Street Journal, “The treaty, in both its original and adapted forms, has outlived its usefulness and deserves to go the way of the Soviet Union.”

The Russians, too, have long held objections to the treaty. They object to the fact that no member of NATO has agreed to ratify the 1999 treaty until Moscow follows through on its pledge to pull its forces out of Moldova and Georgia. Putin has threatened to pull Russia completely out of the CFE framework if follow-up talks with NATO in May are unproductive. There has been speculation that Russia might also withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, which bans nuclear and conventional ground-launched intermediate (300 to 3,000 mile range) ballistic and cruise missiles.

Fathers and Sons of ‘Star Wars’

Russia also has voiced strong objections to the basing of interceptors and radars in its former satellite states. Legally, the United States is within its right to deploy such a system, given its withdrawal in June 2002 from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which prohibited the building of missile defense systems in the region. The $3.5 billion plan, dubbed by some as the “son of Star Wars,” would feature ten long-range missile interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar system in Czech Republic. American officials claim that such missile shields are effective against threats from rogue states like Iran, which has tested missiles capable of reaching continental Europe. But U.S. officials stress the system is limited in its capacity and meant for smaller foes. “It is oriented against a potential enemy with a small arsenal, attempting to blackmail our people, sow chaos, and sap our collective will,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates write in the Daily Telegraph. “This system is of no use against a huge nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal, such as that possessed by Russia.”

Putin sees things differently. In his speeches, he has sought to sway public opinion in Europe. He says the proposed missile shield is “not exclusively a Russian-American relations problem. To some extent it affects the interests of all European states, including those that are not NATO members.” Russian officials say the United States is overstating the threat posed by rogue states like Iran. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, called the missile shield “somewhat chimerical, to put it mildly,” and rejected offers of a cooperation agreement with NATO on missile defense. Putin’s comparisons to the U.S. deployment of Pershing missiles to the continent during the 1980s were meant to raise fears of American belligerence among Europeans, experts say. Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls it a “continuation of a diplomacy game between Russia and our European allies.” Putin’s speech, he adds, “played the old Europeans”—France, Germany, Italy—“off the new Europeans … which in Rumsfeldian speak, means the Czechs, the Poles, the Baltics, who are much more concerned by the Russian threat.”

But some European analysts say Putin’s tough talk may backfire. “I don’t understand why Putin came out like he did,” Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times. “It was much too harsh; it was a strategic mistake.” Others say the Kremlin’s boilerplate rhetoric is more about deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations than about arms control treaties. “This is a symptom of problem, not the problem itself,” says Michael Levi, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The underlying tension is what needs to be addressed, not this fight over the CFE treaty.” After all, writes Alexander Khramchikhin of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in RIA Novosti, NATO members today have fewer weapons than they did in 1991 and the United States deploys fewer troops on European soil than it did back then. Putin’s suspension of Russia’s participation in the CFE Treaty will effectively cease NATO inspections of its military sites.

Larger Bilateral Problems

U.S.-Russian tensions stem in part from Moscow’s resurgence as a major geopolitical player, buoyed by high oil prices and a growing economy. Russia feels it signed many of the arms control agreements from a position of weakness. “After the Warsaw Pact dissolved and the Soviet Union collapsed, a weak Russia rolled over during two rounds of NATO expansion into what used to be Eastern Bloc territory,” writes Ivan Eland of the Oakland-based Independent Institute. “A stronger Russia now regrets such conciliatory policies because they have left the country feeling encircled. In short, the Russian bear is now tired of having its nose pushed in the dirt and is growling back.”

But bilateral tensions have arisen also from Russia’s realization that its nuclear arsenal and defenses are not what they once were and cannot compete with the United States. “Even as the United States’ nuclear forces have grown stronger since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal has sharply deteriorated,” wrote Keir A. Lieber of the University of Notre Dame and Daryl G. Press of the University of Pennsylvania in a 2006 Foreign Affairs article. “What nuclear forces Russia retains are hardly ready for use.” They say that since 1991, Moscow has 39 percent fewer long-range bombers, 58 percent fewer ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), and 80 percent fewer SSBNs (ballistic nuclear-missile carrying submarines). Moreover, “Russia’s early warning system is a mess,” Lieber and Press write. That is why Putin needs persuading, as President Bush recently put it, “so that [the Russians] don’t see us as an antagonistic force, but see us as a friendly force.”

Part of the problem, Levi adds, is Russia being upset about improved relations between Washington and its former satellites. Pro-American presidents in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States have whipped up resentment among some Russians. But the publics of these former Soviet satellites are growing pro-European. Likewise, because of their opposition to the war in Iraq, they are increasingly anti-American. “U.S. officials have tended to assume that the countries of Eastern Europe will remain staunchly pro-American and automatically support U.S. policy,” F. Stephen Larrabee of the RAND Corporation and Andrzej Karkoszka of the Polish Ministry of Defense write in the Taipei Times. “That was true five years ago, but it is much less true today.” Even the Czechs and Poles have voiced some opposition to the staging of anti-missile components on their territory and begun asking: “What’s in it for us?” Specifically they are seeking a deal that will guarantee jobs and contract work for local firms, as well as clearer legal language governing how the bases are secured.


Seemingly every time President Putin takes the dais, there is a flurry of press reports speculating of a new Cold War. His comments last February in Munich in front of senior U.S. officials prompted outrage from some circles, particularly his accusation that Washington had created a “uni-polar” world. Some experts say his most recent speech before parliament may further divide Europe between east and west. Of course, Russia holds legitimate grievances, stemming from the array of antiquarian arms control agreements on the books and what it sees as growing American influence among its former vassals. But the real issue is not about nuclear threats or missile shields, analysts say; it is more about Russia flexing its muscle and reasserting itself after years of being sidelined by Europe and the United States.  

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