Capitalizing on a post-Kosovo crisis thaw in relations, the United States is pursuing at the highest levels a drive to advance key arms-control initiatives with Russia.
The aim is to win Russian assent to a phased deployment by the US of a defense system against limited missile attacks by "rogue" states like North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. The US is also exploring with Russia a new accord on deeper cuts in the thousands of nuclear warheads they still keep on hair triggers.
The urgency of the effort stems from presidential elections both countries hold next year. President Clinton is also to decide next June - if the technology is proven by then - whether to deploy a limited national missile-defense (NMD) system. To do so without Russian assent would mean a destabilizing US "breakout" from a 27-year-old arms-control pact; not moving ahead could extend US vulnerability and give Republicans fodder to attack Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid.
The administration's push faces major hurdles. Moscow is dead set against US plans to build an NMD system, saying it would tip the strategic balance. The GOP-led Congress, meanwhile, bitterly opposes Mr. Clinton's gradual deployment plan, demanding the complete system be built as soon as possible. Finally, US and Russian elections will bring new leadership with different arms-control policies.
It therefore remains uncertain if Clinton will leave office with a major nuclear arms-reduction pact as part of his legacy.
The new US effort stems from a June meeting at which Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to discuss changing the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) to allow the US to build a limited NMD system. They also agreed to look deeper at nuclear-weapons reductions under a third Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START III).
Talking it out
Initial talks failed last month. They were revived last week in Moscow by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who is to meet with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Georgy Mamedov in Washington this week. Since Friday, Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Defense Secretary William Cohen have also discussed the issue with senior Russian officials.
In the midst of these meetings, Clinton's strategy emerged for winning Russia's assent to ABM Treaty changes while responding to massive congressional pressure to build an NMD system. US officials say they have decided to place 100 interceptor missiles and an advanced radar in Alaska in the initial phase. As the missile threat to the US grows and NMD technology proven, talks would be held to allow for a second interceptor site and more radars.
As the ABM Treaty now stands, the US is restricted to a single site in North Dakota. But officials say Alaska offers better protection against the North Korean missile threat, which they now see as the gravest. The threat "closest to the door is the one you worry about," says one official.
The gradual approach is judged to have more chance of Russian acceptance. And while US officials don't make an explicit link, experts see the discussions on START III as a further inducement to Russia.
Previously, the US had ruled out consideration of START III until the Russian parliament ratified the 1993 START II accord, which would limit the sides to no more than 3,500 warheads. But the cash-strapped Kremlin can no longer afford its huge nuclear armory, and proposes slashing stockpiles to 1,500 warheads each. The US favors a ceiling of 2,000 warheads, the minimum Pentagon planners believe is necessary to maintain the US "triad" of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines.
US officials insist they still want START II ratified and say no negotiations on START III are under way. But they acknowledge they want to be ready to conclude the new pact once START II is approved. "We would like to be in a position to move ahead swiftly," says a senior defense official.
Lengths US will go
Bruce Blair, an expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes the US is considering even "more innovative and imaginative" incentives to Moscow. These may include a Russian role in designing and producing NMD technologies and the eventual extension to Russia of the US defense system, he says.
Yet even if the discussions with Moscow succeed, Clinton faces big obstacles in the Senate, which must ratify ABM Treaty changes. Majority Republicans say there is no chance he will win the two-thirds vote if he moves forward with a phased NMD deployment.
GOP leaders want to scrap the ABM Treaty all together as a cold-war anachronism. "There is nothing this administration can send us that will be to the liking of two-thirds of the Senate unless they get serious about the ABM Treaty and stop playing around," says a GOP source.
That means winning Russian assent to a two-site NMD system, he says. Building one site in Alaska will leave the US vulnerable to missile attacks from Iran and Iraq. He says a second site must be built at the same time, along with two advanced radars in Britain and Greenland required to differentiate real warheads from decoys.
Furthermore, he says, the administration's strategy will doom US-Russian relations to long-term tensions as they will have to engage in contentious talks on further ABM Treaty modifications each time the US wants to add new elements to its NMD system.
He and others say Clinton is well aware of all of this. They charge he is moving forward only to prevent the NMD issue from hurting Mr. Gore's campaign. US officials reject that charge, saying working out an ABM deal and new nuclear-arms cuts is a highly complex, time-consuming process that must begin now.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society