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Russians fume as US scraps ABM Treaty

December 15, 2001

MOSCOW: A humiliated Kremlin reacted more in sorrow than in anger to President George Bush’s decision, for the first time in the nuclear era, to scrap an international treaty unilaterally.

Told last Friday of the impending US action, President Vladimir Putin bowed to the inevitable and put a brave face on the snub, which strips the degraded superpower of the last semblance of parity with the US.

“This step was not a surprise for us. However, we consider it a mistake,” Putin reacted.

“It is not a threat to the security of the Russian federation.”

Seeming to regret the White House decision, which capped six months of tricky negotiations with the Russians during which the Republicans made it clear that they wanted to scrap the anti-ballistic-missile treaty, Putin acknowledged that the US was free to abrogate the pact, but stressed the value of upholding international law and treaties at a time of crises.

“We must not allow a legal vacuum in strategic stability,” he warned.

The Kremlin knew the decision was coming and Putin was an embodiment of KGB-trained inscrutability.

But beneath the unflustered exterior, the Russians are fuming, less about any military threat than at the loss of prestige afforded by major treaties with the US.

“It’s all about mentality,” a defence analyst, Alexander Golts, said. “Russia cannot respond in military terms ... What it means for Russia’s military-political elite is that we have lost the last opportunity to pretend we are equal with the US.”

At a time when Putin is going out of his way to align Russia with the west against the common enemy of international terrorism, the US move makes his manoeuvring at home more difficult.

“This will significantly damage relations between Russia and the US, making it difficult to exploit the opportunities that have arisen in the past few months,” Sergei Rogov, director of the USA-Canada Institute, said.

Putin’s low-key reaction, inconceivable six months ago, shows how his relations with the US have been transformed by Sept 11.

As recently as last summer he was warning that Moscow might respond to Washington’s withdrawal from the pact by shredding the many nuclear arms accords which flowed from the treaty and by putting multiple warheads on Rits inter-continental missiles to counter the perceived threat of the US missile defence.

But such threats were muted on Thursday. Russia and the US are now feeling their way towards ambitious new arms cuts, hoping to agree by next summer on a reduction of up to 75 per cent in their nuclear arsenals.

Putin spoke of cutting American and Russian arsenals to between 1,500 and 2,200 warheads. He used Sept 11 to signal a radical turn towards the west in Russian foreign policy, furnishing Washington with copious intelligence on Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, opening up post-Soviet central Asia to US special forces, and lessening criticism of Nato policy in the Balkans and its east European expansion plans.

His pay-off is western “understanding” of Russia’s brutal campaign in Chechnya, silence about new moves to put an opposition television station out of business, support in negotiations for admission to the World Trade Organization, a new pact to cut nuclear arms Moscow cannot afford to maintain, and plans to integrate Russia more fully into Nato policy-making and decision-taking.

But there is intense resistance to Putin’s abrupt policy shift from the political, military, and security elites at home, and the critics are fortified by the US action.

The Bush decision was “worse than a crime. It’s a mistake in substance and timing”, Vladimir Lukin, the pro-western deputy speaker of parliament and a former ambassador to the US, quipped. It would undermine US-Russian cooperation against terrorism.

The Speaker, Gennady Seleznev, called for “more energetic” cooperation between Russia and China “so we can respond to all challenges together”.

The army’s general staff and the successor to the KGB, the FSB, are wary of Bush’s policy in central Asia and worried about American bases in the region once the war in Afghanistan ends.

The security establishment is also worried that the Bush administration’s unilateralism will next be exemplified by a refusal to embody their reductions in nuclear weapons in binding treaties.

Bush has left Russia the injured party, benefiting from the opprobrium heaped on the White House and making common cause with European Nato allies against America.

Russia could cope with it, but global strategic stability was being imperilled, General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, said. “It will untie the hands of a number of countries, and may trigger a new phase of the arms race.”

And despite Putin’s four-square support — for national security reasons — of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, US determination to expand the war to targets beyond Afghanistan will test the Kremlin’s solidarity. —Dawn/The Guardian News Service.