Unfinished Business: Russia and Missile Defense under Clinton

By Talbott, Strobe | Arms Control Today, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Unfinished Business: Russia and Missile Defense under Clinton


Talbott, Strobe, Arms Control Today


As recently as a few months ago, it looked as though the United States and Russia were entering the post-arms control era. That had seemed to be the hope of President George W. Bush, who came into office with a powerful bias against negotiated, ratified, legally binding treaties as a means of regulating the strategic nuclear balance. He regarded the legacy of START-including the treaty his father had signed with Boris Yeltsin eight years before-as baggage of the Cold War and an obstacle to the kind of military, technological, and strategic flexibility Bush believed the United States would need to deter and defeat new threats.

At the height of his post-September 11 domestic popularity and international prestige, Bush delivered a double blow to arms control. First, at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crawford, Texas, he refused to codify reductions in strategic offensive weaponry in a formal treaty; then, he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Putin was so determined to accelerate and solidify his country's orientation toward the West that he decided, over the objection of much of his military and political elite, that he could live without the ABM Treaty. But he persisted in his efforts to persuade Bush that he needed a treaty to bolster the appearance that, as Russia reduced its levels of strategic weaponry, a modicum of parity with the United States still obtained.

At their summit in May, Bush relented on the question of form and signed what he wanted to call the Treaty of Moscow. Neither in name nor substance was it a full-fledged successor to START II (my former colleague John Holum has an analysis of the new agreement on p. 7 of this issue). But at least it kept alive the enterprise of arms control by treaty.

In making that concession, Bush was re-establishing a degree of continuity with his predecessors-not just with his father but with Bill Clinton, which was no doubt more difficult for him to do, or at least to acknowledge. Clinton had wanted to build on the START II treaty that George H. W. Bush had signed with Yeltsin in January 1993 and, during his own presidency, to add several roman numerals to the process. Clinton was thwarted in that desire by the combination of Russian and American domestic resistance. The Duma refused to ratify anything with Yeltsin's name on it, and later the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate had a similar distaste for anything bearing Clinton's imprimatur. Yet for eight years, Clinton looked for ways to reach agreement with Yeltsin-and, in his final year, with Putin.

On offer was a two-part deal: the framework of a START III treaty that would reduce offensive levels well below those in START II, coupled with amendments to the ABM Treaty that would permit a limited national missile defense (NMD) against rogue state threats. Especially in the wake of a North Korean missile test in 1998 and the Iranians' determination to develop missiles of their own (with considerable Russian help), the United States felt all the more strongly that the ABM Treaty had to be modified in order to survive.

For their part, however, the Russians were convinced that any relaxation of the limits on defense in the ABM Treaty would expose them to the danger of blackmail or even decapitation by the United States. In addition to fearing latter-day Star Wars technology, they worried that the United States could supplement its formidable nuclear offenses with exquisitely accurate conventional weaponry of the sort they saw so dramatically on display against targets in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Nonetheless, there was, during the Clinton administration, a shared premise in Washington and in Moscow, just as there had been for 40 years, that offense and defense were inextricably linked: only if anti-missile systems were constrained could missiles themselves be reduced without upsetting the balance of terror, or, as it was more politely known on the American side, "mutual deterrence" and, on the Russian side, "strategic stability. …

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