War-like words

Publish date: May 5, 1999

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russia finds diplomatic high ground, escalates rhetoric, but pace of disarmament work doesn't slacken

The Kosovo insult seems to have altered Russia’s strategic outlook, or so it would seem if you’re taken in by the publicity surrounding President Boris Yeltsin’s Security Counsel meeting of 29 April. Military leaders, among them the Defence Minister — a former rocket forces commander — said publicly that they would boost funding for Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Now analysts say the chance of ratifying START-II before December’s Duma elections was jettisoned along with NATO’s bombs in the air over Yugoslavia. Judging by comments made by Russian Defence Minister, Igor Sergeev, on a recent visit to Norway, military co-operation with NATO-member countries on environmental issues has also been suspended.

Yet despite these negative signals Russia is quietly complying with all existing international disarmament and nuclear safety agreements. Outrage over Kosovo seems only to have been voiced by Russian officials in the public eye. In the field, on the working level, joint projects are moving ahead as planned.

Co-operation persists
As the Pentagon points out, while political meetings with Russia’s Ministry of Defence are on hold, things are still moving in practise. But for how long? At some point all projects need a high-level decision or signature before they can proceed. Some projects could grind to a halt if that point arrives while Russia is still using war-like words with the West.

The U.S.-funded Co-operative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, launched in 1991 to help secure former Soviet weapons of mass destruction, has suffered no major set backs so far.

"It has continued with only minor bumps (since the Kosovo conflict)," U.S. Col. Robert Boudreau, chief of the CTR office in Moscow, told the Associated Press.

Since 1991, Congress has provided $2.3 billion to support CTR efforts.

"We are proceeding as scheduled. There’ve been no interruptions," Leonid Kuratov, head of Severodvinsk’s environmental committee, told Bellona Web.

Kuratov was talking about the construction of a CTR-funded processing facility for low-active liquid waste at Zvezdochka yard in Severodvinsk

Post-Kosovo co-operation
Russia’s new nuclear posturing, if indeed tangible and not just political fodder for domestic consumption, will, at best, serve as spoiler in post-Kosovo negotiations over disarmament projects. But any real Russian interest in a nuclear revival might provide some U.S. congressmen the leverage needed to stop the flow of money required to destroy redundant weapons stockpiles. A similar argument was used against aid for dismantling submarines in the past. Congressional hawks argued that as long as the United States pays for the tail end of the submarine life cycle, Russia can save its own scarce funds to build new boats.

While it is true that any subsidy for the defence budget ends up freeing money for other (defence) purposes, it seems unreasonable to assume that Russia would end all military construction just to receive U.S. aid for weapons dismantling. What the question burns down to is, would the United States rather see a Russia with a handful of new attack submarines and safely dismantled old boats, or a Russia with a handful of new attack submarines and a large number of floating Chernobyls?

In the meantime, the present situation already points toward one major area of post-Kosovo co-operation; general-purpose submarines. Moscow requested aid for dismantling these boats before the Kosovo conflict broke out. Surprisingly, the freeze in military-to-military contacts has not interrupted preparations for a Pentagon assessment of the Russian request. According to one Pentagon source, meetings are going on pretty much as planned, and the Russian side has set up a steering committee to assess infrastructure and capital investment requirements, although that committee has not yet met.

The key factors in assessing the Kosovo conflict’s impact on disarmament projects are how and when the war ends. If Russia can play a constructive role negotiating a settlement, the prevailing logic suggests, then U.S.-Russian relations will likely normalise. In contrast, the most significant danger to projects such as Co-operative Threat Reduction and Arctic Military Environmental Co-operation lies in a protracted conflict.

For their part, western decision-makers themselves may determine that Kosovo has redefined the national interest, displacing the priority dismantling of submarines in the process. They may decide disarmament programs are not that important after all. What, for instance, will the mood be in Washington when Congress decides how to pay for Kosovo? Lawmakers may re-evaluate aid programs that now seem safe.

It would be in everyone’s interest if, behind the strong rhetoric, both Washington and Moscow keep the communications channels open while continuing to work together on projects both sides know will still be important after Kosovo.