The June 4 - 5 summit between U.S. President Clinton and Russian President Putin is a summit of "might-have-beens." At one point, it might have been possible for the United States and Russia to conclude arms control agreements that would eliminate thousands of nuclear weapons in both countries. It might have been an opportunity to agree to take nuclear weapons off alert. It might have been an opportunity to set the stage for significant arms control progress in the next Administration.
What is more likely now is a "get-acquainted" summit.
It has been more than seven years since the U.S. and Russia concluded a major bilateral arms control agreement resulting in significant reductions in long-range, strategic nuclear weapons. In January 1993, shortly before President Bush left office, the two countries agreed to a ceiling of 3,000 - 3,500 of these weapons in the START II Treaty. More than seven years later, the agreement has yet to be implemented.
It has been three years since the March 1997 Clinton-Yeltsin summit in which the two leaders agreed to establish a goal of lowering the ceiling on strategic nuclear weapons to 2,000 - 2,500 for each side as part of a START III agreement. There has been no progress toward that goal. In fact, the Russians have proposed even lower ceilings of 1,000 - 1,500 for each side. Despite Russian offers to reduce drastically the most serious threat to U.S. security, the Clinton Administration is saying "no thank you," bowing to Pentagon resistance to deeper reductions. Thus the Clinton Administration has put the U.S. in the untenable position of being the world's sole opponent to deeper reductions in nuclear arsenals.
With this background, all hopes for nuclear weapons reductions in the near-term have been dashed. The American push for a national missile defense -- driven by politics, not technology -- combined with Pentagon resistance to deeper nuclear reductions, have resulted in stalemate, not progress.
The Russians have stated repeatedly that they are not prepared to make a deal that permits the initial deployment of an expandable national missile defense system. Indeed, Russia has pointed out that its acceptance of all the agreements limiting offensive nuclear forces is conditioned on retaining the ABM Treaty's restrictions on missile defense systems, and has threatened to pull out of the entire nuclear arms control process if the U.S. abandons the ABM Treaty. At the same time, Republicans are pressing to go well beyond the Clinton deployment plan to a layered defense on land, at sea and in space that will cost upwards of $120 billion and further complicate relations with other countries.
With this impasse at the summit, there will almost surely be no cooperation on nuclear weapons reductions. It will likely take a new U.S. President with new creativity to find a way to cut the Gordian knot that arms control has become.
Meanwhile, other urgent nuclear dangers go unaddressed. Had the Clinton Administration not poured all its energy into the stymied effort to get Russian agreement on missile defense, it could have pursued new steps, with a new and energetic Russian President, to drastically accelerate cooperative efforts to secure, monitor, and reduce Russian and U.S. stocks of nuclear bomb materials, preventing the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons from falling into hostile hands. Instead, efforts to address this dire threat to U.S. security have been relegated to third-tier status.
The summit may produce one useful agreement: the elimination of 34 tons of excess weapons plutonium (out of a Russian stockpile of over 160 tons of separated plutonium). But even in this case, the Administration has put little high-level effort into raising the funds required to implement the agreement. A modest announcement on opening up a few previously secret buildings in the Russian nuclear complex is also possible, and there will surely be an intensive discussion of Russia's nuclear and missile cooperation with states such as Iran and India.
The summit can still be very useful. It is critical to continue a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington, and establish a positive path with Russia's new leader. After a promising start in the early 1990's, relations between the two countries have deteriorated over disagreements about NATO expansion, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the bombing of Iraq and national missile defense. It is important that the Clinton and Putin find areas of common ground. Moreover, it is essential that Russia evolve into a more democratic and open society. Economic and reform issues and the war in Chechnya will provide a broad agenda of issues to be addressed.
Unfortunately, hopes for major nuclear weapons reductions have disappeared and the summit can at best produce a mild glow to U.S.-Russian relations.
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