WASHINGTON and Moscow will take up an old topic for discussion when US Secretary of State James Baker III arrives in Moscow Monday - arms control.
The air is filled these days with rhetoric about old enemies becoming allies. Russian President Boris Yeltsin caught the attention of many when he suggested, in his debut speech on arms control delivered Jan. 29, that the US and Russia collaborate in a global system of defense as a replacement for the United States's Star Wars program. He grabbed headlines by announcing that Russian missiles would no longer be aimed at North America.
But critics here say the Yeltsin arms-control policy is a seriously flawed and contradictory combination of old-style Soviet arms- control and untested radical ideas. The entire arms-control process has been put in jeopardy by the continuing inability of the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose confederation that has replaced the Soviet Union, to agree on the future status of the former Soviet armed forces.
Some Russian arms control experts and officials speak confidently about moving quickly to a new relationship. A joint program to develop defenses against missile attacks, intended to deal with the growing danger that countries such as Iraq or Iran could obtain long-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads, will change the way the two countries see each other, says Sergei Blagovolin, head of the independent Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies.
"If we were involved in such a large-scale military project, it will allow us - once and for all - to eliminate the mutual military threat, to reconcile our military doctrines, to form a military division of labor," Mr. Blagovolin says.
The Yeltsin arms control declaration offered a number of unilateral steps and proposals for mutual cuts in nuclear weapons designed to bring the total level of warheads well below the number allowed under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed last year with what was then the Soviet Union (but not yet ratified). The Russian proposals followed a speech along similar lines by President Bush in mid-January. Mr. Bush and Mr. Yeltsin met in New York and Washington earlier this month and Secretary Baker's Feb. 17-18 visit in Moscow is intended as a more concrete followup to those talks.
"There is a great deal of room for compromise between the American position and our position," says Andrei Kokoshin, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute and an arms-control specialist who serves as an advisor to Yeltsin. "We have a chance to move quickly - not through long, boring negotiations as we did with START but through an agreement in principle without all those details, combined with parallel, unilateral steps."
Georgi Arbatov, longtime arms control advisor to Soviet leaders and head of the USA-Canada Institute, has seriously questioned the new Yeltsin policy. According to a summary of his remarks published in Izvestia on Feb. 8, Mr. Arbatov called the announced change in targeting of missiles "not very well thought out." He asks against whom the missiles will now be targeted, charging that the lack of clarity has "caused anxiety all over the world and particularly within the Commonwealth of Independent States."
Arbatov aims his main criticism at the proposed collaboration on a global defense system, saying it undermines the existing Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty between the Soviet Union and the US that controls the growth of such systems. He calls it as impractical and useless as the American Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that the Soviet Union has long opposed as spreading the arms race to space.
"It will undoubtedly lead toward the growth of expenditures for the arms race which suits the interest of both the American and Russian military industrial complexes," Arbatov charges.
Mr. Kokoshin, who says he was involved in the policymaking process but not in drafting the speech, says that Yeltsin security policy is the product of many voices, not least of which is the military. He defends Yeltsin's proposal, asserting that the ABM treaty will not be undermined because the Russian concept does not include space-based weapons. Only space-based systems to detect missile launches, such as satellites, would be used and the two countries could collaborate on other areas including buildin g a new generation of antimissile systems.
But Kokoshin and others have admitted that the Yeltsin announcement on targeting was symbolic at best. "Retargeting as such hasn't taken place yet," admitted Defense Minister Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, in an interview published Feb. 12. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, speaking at a United Nations disarmament conference on Wednesday in Geneva, seemed to alter the idea when he proposed that both countries remove their weapons from alert and consider separating warheads from their missiles.
The value of even these disarmament proposals are difficult to judge when the future status of the armed forces under the Commonwealth of Independent States is far from clear. In principle the CIS members agreed to a unified and single command over "strategic" forces, a reference to nuclear-armed forces and their supporting units.
But talks during the past two days in Minsk on taking the practical steps for this, including specifying which units form the unified forces, the creation of a joint defense budget, and operation of a joint defense ministry appear to have failed to yield results. The commonwealth leaders are to meet today to ratify a number of agreements including on implementation of the two key arms control treaties already signed by the former Soviet Union: the START treaty and the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty , signed in Nov. 1990.
Without such agreement Russian President Yeltsin, at the urging of the former Soviet defense ministry, is apparently ready to move in the next few days to form a separate Russian army.