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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Pacts Don't Protect Russia




After several months of acrimonious exchanges of insults between Moscow and the West, the sun is shining again. Last Sunday in Cologne, President Boris Yeltsin declared: "We need to make up after our fight. That is the main thing."


Last Friday at talks in Helsinki, Finland, Russia submitted to NATO demands and agreed to stop insisting on a separate Russian zone of responsibility in NATO-occupied Kosovo. In Cologne, after a hourlong meeting with President Bill Clinton, Yeltsin agreed to begin a discussion soon with the United States on revising the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Yeltsin also assured Clinton that the long-stalled START II arms reduction treaty will soon be ratified. Clinton in return agreed to begin serious talks on a follow-up START III agreement, concurrent with the ABM talks.


The new U.S.-Russian detente seems complete. But there is a snag: Yeltsin's concessions do not amount to much in real terms.


According to the text of the ABM treaty, Russia is actually legally obliged to begin a discussion on amendments with the United States. This process was established decades ago - the Soviet Union and the United States seriously amended the ABM treaty in 1974.


Of course, any future ABM amendment should be ratified to become law, and such a ratification is hardly possible in Russia today, or anytime in the future. Ratification of the beleaguered START II treaty is equally no more than a daydream. In Germany, Yeltsin did not offer any concessions as leader of a free state. He paid homage and pledged personal loyalty as a vassal of rich Western states, but these pledges do not bind Russia.


Yeltsin badly needs Western money to prop up his regime and Western political support to fight a growing number of internal political foes that are demanding his resignation. Western observers are wrong when they say that Russia needs Western money and so is forced into humiliating concessions. Yeltsin and his proxies need the money - not Russia. Ordinary Russians will never see a cent of it - all will most likely be stolen, as before. The Russians will get involved only when the West demands that its "financial aid" be repaid with interest and imposes sanctions to ensure repayment.


Most Russians have already set their minds on what they may expect from the West in the future. According to three recent polls, 73 percent of Russians consider the NATO military operation in Yugoslavia as a direct threat to Russia's security. The majority of those polled said that NATO wanted to demonstrate its strength. The second most popular answer was that NATO is trying to take over the Balkans in order to advance toward the Russian borders to attack Russia. Most Russian military officers, of course, agree with their countrymen that the West is a threat and a foe. The Defense Ministry has often officially announced that any alteration of the ABM treaty will lead to a breakdown of all other existing arms control treaties.


One could assume that such a "breakdown" would mean a renewed nuclear arms race or even nuclear war. But in private, Russian officers are much more cool. A Russian general involved in ABM discussions with the United States once told me: "We cannot stop military-technical progress, though we try our best. We know that as soon as the United States will be capable of deploying a national ABM system to guard U.S. territory from enemy missiles, they will deploy. The ABM treaty in itself will not deter the Americans for a second."


The bombing of Yugoslavia has proven that international agreements mean nothing in Washington today, since there is no second superpower to enforce compliance. But the Russian military also knows that the United States is technically unable to build a credible national ABM defense system in the coming decade. Maybe such a system cannot be built in 20 or even 30 years. So there is plenty of time to negotiate. While the Russian nuclear threat still exists and the U.S. ABM system is weak, Western aggression is not a real option, no matter what Russian public opinion polls say.


When the Russian military says that the current network of arms control agreements will collapse because of a violation of the ABM treaty, they actually mean that a new network will have to be negotiated. Clinton will leave office in January 2001. The Yeltsin regime will most likely collapse much earlier. But the professional military establishments on both sides of the Atlantic will remain the same and arms negotiations will continue. Professional military people worldwide hate defense spending cuts, but they hate real war even more.


Pavel Felgenhauer is chief defense correspondent for Segodnya.