Russia's Strategic Priorities

By Wallander, Celeste A. | Arms Control Today, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Russia's Strategic Priorities


Wallander, Celeste A., Arms Control Today


The Russian government has bet it will not lose as much from a world without the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as it will gain from a United States willing to cooperate.

President George W. Bush announced in December that the United States planned to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in six months. For years, Russia had warned that loss of the treaty would undermine the nuclear strategic stability on which the delicate balance of terror had rested during the Cold War. It had claimed that, without the ABM Treaty, other arms control agreements could not stand, including START I and II, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and even the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Russia's leaders threatened a new arms race that would restore Cold War acrimony.

Yet, sometime between the first serious Russian warnings in 1999 and the December 2001 decision, something changed. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the decision by calling it merely a "mistake" and said that it would not harm improving U.S.-Russian relations. Russia has not withdrawn from any arms control agreements; in fact, Russia and the United States are moving forward with discussions for a new offensive arms limitation agreement, perhaps in time for a Bush-Putin summit in early summer 2002.

What has happened to make Russia sanguine about a world without the ABM Treaty? Russia's priorities have changed, as well as its assessment of what U.S. testing portends for the strategic relationship in the next 10 to 15 years. The political relationship has improved, and the Putin leadership cannot reverse course without closing off vital opportunities for integration and chances to secure resources to solve the terrible problems that plague Russia. In short, what has happened is that the Russian government has bet it will not lose as much from a world without the treaty as it will gain from a United States willing to cooperate. Most of all, Russia's leaders have realized that U.S. missile defenses will not be a reality for some time and that they can preserve options for responding to potential defenses over the next few years.

The Stakes

The ABM Treaty provided Russia with status, partnership, and security. Status came from locking the United States into a bilateral relationship that no other country shared. The ABM Treaty preserved an aspect of superpower status that Russia could claim even as its conventional forces shrunk to nearly one-fourth their former size and its strategic nuclear arsenal dropped to nearly half of its Cold War high. By the same token, the treaty created a claim for partnership in negotiating strategic stability in the new security environment. Although the Bush administration tried to relegate Russia to a lower priority in U.S. foreign policy in the early months of its term, it found it needed to take Russia seriously to try to find a compromise on the ABM Treaty, if only to reassure European allies that the United States remained a reliable partner.

At the same time, the ABM Treaty provided security benefits. Nuclear deterrence policy is not merely about mutual assured destruction and the threat of being able to launch a few missiles at vulnerable cities. It remains based on counterforce calculations: we hold at risk not merely (or primarily) cities and citizens to deter leaders in other states, but military, defense, and industrial infrastructure.' By preventing the United States from deploying defenses, the ABM Treaty limited U.S. counterforce capability.

The decision to forego these advantages without vehement objection is due in part to a new leadership style (Putin's pragmatism vs. Boris Yeltsin's high drama), but it is more importantly rooted in a shift in priorities. Putin's foreign policy serves his domestic economic goals: to stabilize, regularize, and restructure the economy to support a 21st century Russian society and cultivate a newly confident Russian state. …

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