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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Arms Talks Gap Narrowing

The seemingly endless celebrations that traditionally make for 10 days of down time in May are over. But the coming weeks will be a time of important decision-making. The nation will have a new government, and perhaps President Vladimir Putin will present his long-awaited economic plan. U.S. President Bill Clinton is scheduled to be in Moscow on June 4 and 5. The main topic of discussion is expected to be nuclear arms issues that may determine U.S.-Russian relations for decades to come.

The stakes are high. The U.S. government wants to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to build a limited national missile defense (NMD). Clinton has announced that he will make a decision on NMD deployment in June. The summit in Moscow seems to be the last chance to find a compromise. If there is no agreement, the United States may go ahead with NMD, abrogating the ABM treaty, which could create a long-term schism between Moscow and Washington. Until now, Russian officials have said publicly that consultations on ABM and NMD are deadlocked, that Russia opposes U.S. proposals for amending the ABM treaty, while Washington rejects Russian arguments.

The U.S.-Russian arms control fray has also intensified due to serious disagreements in parallel talks over the terms of the START III arms reduction treaty. The outline of START III - a limit of from 2,000 to 2,500 strategic nuclear warheads for each country - was agreed to by Clinton and former President Boris Yeltsin in 1997 at a summit in Helsinki. But Russia, unable now to maintain a large nuclear arsenal, wants more drastic reductions: to 1,500 warheads or fewer. Russia also wants to impose some limits on the deployment of U.S. long-range, sea-based cruise missiles, a notion that has been rejected by Washington.

The situation seems to be hopeless, and the coming summit - an inevitable disaster. But not all is as bad as it seems. Recent leaks from Washington indicate there might yet be a compromise.

Until recently, the Pentagon was adamant that the United States should have no fewer than 2,500 warheads. But recently there have been rumors that Washington has indicated it could go below 2,000 if Russia compromises on ABM. The Russian and U.S. negotiating positions on a revised START III framework are still some distance apart, but the gap is said to be narrowing.

A compromise on ABM is possible, because the Russian military knows that the proposed U.S. NMD system does not really threaten Russia and that in the coming decades it would technically be impossible to create an ABM system in North America that could fully negate even a reduced Russian nuclear deterrent. From a purely military-technical point of view, the NMD project is very expensive and totally unreliable. The true effectiveness of any ABM shield can only be tested during an actual ballistic attack. Before the opposite is proved, the U.S. government will be forced to assume, in dealing with any unfriendly nation, that in time of war the NMD system will not be able to intercept a single warhead.

But Russian military planners will be forced to assume that a U.S. ABM shield will intercept more than 90 percent of incoming warheads. Such a theoretical threat can only help our generals press for more defense spending, so m any in our military actually want the United States to go forward with NMD.

Since 1997, the Defense Ministry has spent the lion's share of its small procurement budget to deploy a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Topol-M (SS-27). The SS-27 was developed in the 1980s as a response to the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative and is specifically designed to negate enemy ABM defenses.

The Russian army began a war in Chechnya in 1999 without modern night-capable equipment, and thousands of servicemen have been killed and wounded because the deployment of the SS-27 "anti-ABM" ICBM sucked up all the money. However, today the only acting ABM system in the world is Russia's own, stationed around Moscow. A rapid deployment of a U.S. NMD could in retrospect rationalize the SS-27 program, while at the same time creating a "threat" that will help buy more ICBMs.

The June summit might be a success, and ground-breaking agreements might be reached that will in the end promote increased defense spending. But if the summit fails, defense spending will increase even more. So whatever the outcome, both the U.S. and Russian military-industrial complexes win.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.