Basking in a warm post-Kosovo glow, the presidents of Russia and the United States agreed over the weekend to talks on two divisive issues: proposed changes to the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and reducing strategic nuclear weapons.
At the Group of Eight summit of leading industrial nations plus Russia in Cologne, Germany, Russia's Boris Yeltsin said he would lend an ear to American proposals to amend the ABM pact, which sets limits on the types of antimissile defense systems both countries can deploy. Moscow has heretofore vehemently opposed such changes.
In return, President Clinton pledged to launch discussions later this year on a START III treaty on reducing long-range nuclear arms. Washington dropped its insistence that Russia ratify the existing START II first. That pact sets a limit of 3,500 warheads on each side. START III would further reduce the ceiling to between 2,000 and 2,500 each.
The agreements came as both sides spoke loftily of fence-mending after the bitterness over NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia. But Kremlin watchers say Mr. Yeltsin's pledges could prove empty words.
Analysts note that the ailing, isolated president is a showman who basks in the international limelight. While trying to ingratiate himself to the West, from which Russia desperately needs foreign loans, Yeltsin has made promises that are opposed by Russia's political and military elite.
"You have to distinguish between Yeltsin the man and Russian foreign policy," says Dmitri Trenin, a military analyst based in Moscow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Yeltsin the man wanted to do something symbolic to signal that Russia is still one of the big boys. We're not talking about any iron-clad agreements here."
With parliamentary elections due in December and a presidential vote six months later, it is highly unlikely that the Communist- and nationalist-dominated Duma, the lower house of parliament, will approve START II, let alone changes to the ABM pact. START II was reached in 1993 and approved by the US Senate three years later. The treaty was finally about to be endorsed by the Duma earlier this year when it was shelved to protest NATO's bombing campaign over Kosovo.
Analysts note that Russia has nothing to lose by ratification, as its aging nuclear arsenal is falling apart anyway. But cutting nuclear strength is a politically weighted issue.
"START II is dead for now," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military commentator with the national newspaper Sevodnya. "It is not going to be ratified before elections. Everyone knows there is a need to scale back on warheads. But why give the victory to Yeltsin?"
Equally problematic, he says, would be mustering support for altering the ABM treaty. Under pressure by the US Congress, the Clinton administration has pledged $6.6 billion in its fiscal 2000 budget to develop a shield against limited ballistic-missile attacks. The feared enemies are not a post-cold-war Russia, but so-called rogue states like North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. A financially ruined Moscow has felt threatened by the plan, however, saying that priority should go toward disarmament, not new military buildups.
By even agreeing to listen to the American point of view, Yeltsin provoked deep discomfort in Russia. "This is not the best time politically to be examining the matter," says Vladimir Averchev, with the opposition liberal Yabloko party. But Russian politicians might look more favorably on the matter if their country were included in building and deploying the defensive shield, he says. "Since the US insists so stubbornly on changing the ABM treaty, we must try to get concessions. One might be joint cooperation on a hemispheric system of defense."
Scientists caution, however, that the debate may be a moot point. They are not even sure it is possible to build the envisioned missile-defense system.