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Bush, Putin to Focus on New Arms Reduction Treaty - 2002-05-21

The highlight of the summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin this week will be the signing of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty. The two leaders are to sign the accord in Moscow on Friday. This arms control agreement is widely seen as a significant step in the evolution of a new U.S.-Russian relationship.

The three-page treaty says Russia and the United States will reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals from about 6,000 to about 2,000 warheads each by the year 2012.

When President Bush announced that agreement had been reached, he hailed the news as a sign of a turning point in Russian-American relations. "This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War. When I sign the treaty with President Putin in Russia, we will begin the new era," Mr. Bush said.

Most analysts here agree, and they say both nations will benefit.

They said the United States got the flexibility it wanted - the right to dismantle but not destroy some of the warheads.

Mr. Putin got a formal agreement on reducing arms - something he has eagerly sought since his government simply cannot afford to maintain its current arsenal.

Dimitry Trenin is an expert on Russian policy with the Carnegie Endowment here in Moscow. He said the treaty also allows both countries to set out a new relationship for the future.

"I think both sides have won because had there been no treaty that would have meant that the old agenda is still there. The old agenda would have still had the capacity to tie us down to the things that are no longer relevant. And now this enables both countries to put this old agenda to one side and start working on the new agenda," Mr. Trenin said.

Independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer agreed, but he said Russia will really only benefit if the treaty is the first step in the final dismantling of the old Soviet military structure.

"In that respect for Russia will take a further step to change its military doctrine - finally really begin to cut its military structures and demilitarize the country and turn it into a sort of ordinary civilian country. Well, that's going to be good for Russia," Mr. Felgenhauer said.

However, analysts have said there are potential pitfalls ahead.

Mr. Bush still plans to build a national missile defense system that Russia objects to. And the American leader also wants to go ahead with the development of a tactical nuclear warhead - an earth-penetrating weapon for use against hardened underground targets like the tunnel complexes in Afghanistan. Russia objects to this too.

There also is the question of how long President Putin can sustain his pro-Western foreign policy without getting something more tangible than good will in return. Some argue that the new arms treaty is tangible indeed. Others worry that Mr. Putin's cooperative approach has made him appear too close to the West and, after all, it is the West, which has traditionally been seen as the enemy.

"Basically, the elite is split between those who want to continue some kind of version of old Soviet foreign policy and those who will understand that Russia belongs in the West. [that] Putin's policies are right," stressed defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "I would say there is no threat of any military coups or something, but this is a very serious strategic discussion and it's not over yet." But ever since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Mr. Putin has steadfastly pursued a course aimed at developing a strategic partnership with the United States.

And many here feel that in this new atmosphere of cooperation there is little reason to feel that whatever the problems, they cannot be solved too.