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Ekho Moskvi Radio Station

Interview with Alexei Arbatov, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Defence Committee on the ABM treaty

June 13, 2002

Anchor: Good day. This is the Ekho Moskvi radio station, and our guest is Alexei Arbatov, Deputy Chairman of the Defence Committee of the State Duma.

Arbatov: from the Yabloko faction.

Anchor: from the Yabloko faction.

Arbatov: Good day.

Anchor: We need you Alexei first of all as a defense expert. The US will officially withdraw from the ABM Treaty today. And they will also conduct the first testing of the system today or tomorrow. At first everybody said that the withdrawal was dangerous for Russia and directed against it. Then, after the talks between Putin and Bush, either Bush convinced Putin or Putin convinced himself that there was no danger in the US secession from the ABM Treaty. What do you think about this?

A: I think the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was performed in accordance with its provisions, and Article 15 allows a withdrawal with a notice six months in advance, which is what they did. Today marks six months since they issued that notice on December 13 last year. This withdrawal is an extremely negative event historically. It will have far-reaching consequences. These consequences -- 10 and even 15 years from now -- will still have an effect, as it was possible to preserve the treaty by amending it. This would have facilitated the creation of a limited defense from pariah states that Washington allegedly fears. On the other hand, it would have made it possible to preserve strategic stability between Russia and the US, when neither country has a missile defense against each other.

Q: If everything was that simple, by amending the Treaty the US and its administration -- by the way first the Clinton administration and then the Bush administration said they would withdraw. So what is it, just a whim or disagreement with the experts' point of view?

A: In this field, as in any other field where the vital national security interests and the most lethal weapons are involved, there is always the logic of hard bargaining when each side is ready to make concessions on matters of defense only if the other side concedes, and in no other way. The Clinton administration asked us to discuss with them possible amendments that would allow them to create a limited system of national missile defense. We declined partly because it was the year 2000 when the administration was about to end its tour of duty, and the Republican opposition made it clear that it would not support any agreement signed by Clinton. In addition the US Congress was controlled by the Republicans, and it was obvious that they would not support it either. Then when the new administration came, there were negotiations on amendments. But then Russia balked, apparently hoping that it would stand its ground and say: no amendments, no changes to the ABM Treaty, and its American allies, liberals in the US, and also China would exert influence on the administration and prevent its secession from the ABM Treaty. But this did not work. But that time Russia had very weak bargaining chips in its hands to conduct the hardest, most pragmatic negotiations devoid of any romanticism, negotiations that have been proceeding on these matters for 30 years.

Q: You know it reminds me of the story with poultry and steel. If you probably remember, some time ago the leadership of Russia, I don't know whether it was under Yeltsin or Putin, and it's not really important, said that we would respond to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty asymmetrically. Then there was poultry and there was steel. We responded with the poultry. I have noticed that politicians have been saying more and more often lately that we would then raise the issue of the Bering Straits and its division. So this is also some sort of response. Besides it is near Alaska where new bases are being built.

A: That is simply ridiculous. I think we could also demand Alaska back for that matter. Especially since some legal subtleties were not observed last century, actually the century before last.

Q: By the way America is building some of its missile defense bases there.

A: They are building the first base there because this is required by the rules of ballistics. If North Korea creates long-range missiles, and this is the number one target for the American missile defense system: its missiles will fly through this area, and it is easier to intercept them from Alaska. A ballistic missile flies along a certain trajectory, it cannot zigzag like a plane. So it is quite easy. The Clinton administration planned to create only two limited bases: one in Alaska, because North Korea was the prime candidate and it has actually already launched space satellites, which means that it has access to intercontinental capabilities, again owing tothe law of ballistics. The second candidate is Iran. To protect themselves from Iran, they needed a base somewhere in North Dakota. This is where they planned to build the second base. But the new administration does not want to bind itself to these conditions. It is going to build a broader missile defense system that will also include air and naval components, interception at the initial stage, at the middle stage, etc. In other words, they do not want to be bound by anything and this is why they withdrew from the ABM Treaty and stopped discussing any amendments with us after we assumed this position.

Q: If we return to the asymmetrical response. A decision has been made. They have withdrawn and they are already testing. Do you know if an asymmetrical response is possible? And should there be a response at all?

A: Asymmetrical responses are possible. It is important that we can afford this response because Russia's financial possibilities are much more modest than those of the US. I would say by several times. But it should also be a correct response. What the Defense Ministry and general staff officials are saying now sounds nice and soothing. But in fact it does not reflect reality, as in order to come up with an asymmetrical response, it is necessary to change the development programme of our strategic nuclear forces. I believe the decisions that were made a year and a half ago were a very big mistake. They were not attributable to considerations of strategic expediency but rather infighting within the Defense Ministry. The general staff wanted to liquidate strategic rocket forces as an armed service. To this end it made plans for radical cuts in these forces and the curtailment of their modernization. This affects the Topol-M missiles that are known to the whole country now. This seriously weakened our position in the talks with the US because they did not care at all during the entire 30 years of negotiations about naval strategic forces or strategic aviation, where they have always been stronger than Russia. But they were always interested in the limitation of the land-based component of strategic forces. And we cut them on our own. It is only natural that the Americans lost any interest. This takes us back to the question that all emotions should be set aside, as hard negotiations are under way. The talks that were conducted between Russia and the US before the May summit were quite unique, as the Americans did not put forth any requests on what they would like Russia to do to limit and reduce its forces. Not even one.

Q: In your view what does this mean?

A: This means that the programme we had drafted made them lose all interest in any serious negotiations because there was nothing they could ask of us. We had done ourselves what they were trying to obtain during the previous decades of talks but couldn't, and we had done even more. So these negotiations turn into a public relations campaign.

Q: So it was not a question of money but a question of wrong strategy. Is that right?

A: Moreover, assessments made by many specialists, including myself and many military and civilian institutions, say that the current modernization programme of the Russian strategic nuclear forces is extremely costly. If we implement it in the way it is written, we will assume heavy costs but obtain little result, as we do not concentrate on something we can do better than others, something that benefits us more than others, particularly the Topol-M. Instead we spread our resources very thinly.

Q: But the Duma and your committee authorize the allocation of resources, you vote and decide to finance a certain programme. Perhaps ordinary taxpayers do not know about this, but you get the full picture.

A: I would like to pay credit to our committee and say that the prevailing opinion in the committee on this issue was that the decision was wrong. We had very many contacts with the President, the Security Council and the Defense Minister, numerous memoranda were written and the committee decided to revise the decision. However, it was not revised, and the budget failed to defend these priorities, as the committee does not allocate money alone, it does so together with other committees, including committees that are fully controlled by pro-presidential parties. So the committee failed to defend its point of view, especially as the Defense Committee must think not only about the Topol-M programme, but also about the salaries of officers, their housing and many other problems.

Q: But then it seems that this is not just a wrong strategy, but that there is simply a shortage of money.

A: This is not the case. I am trying to explain to you that this is not the case. If the money allocated for the strategic nuclear forces was spent on other systems, for example Topol-M, we could achieve more results for the same amount of money.

Q: You speak of the Topol-M as if it were some kind of panacea, as if we deployed Topol-M missiles and the Americans could understand that they should not secede from the ABM Treaty.

A: We've missed the bus. Now by accelerating the deployment of Topol-M missiles we can only make Americans resume negotiations on new restrictions on the future missile defense system. This will not save the ABM Treaty, but will lead us to a new treaty that could restrict it to such an extent that we will no longer fear each other, but will at the same time be capable of creating defense against threshold countries, pariah states. By the way, Russia needs this defense no less than the US and maybe even more. We simply don't have any money for that. Indeed these threshold countries are close to Russia, and within 10 years as they try to reach the US with their missiles they will cover our territory.

Q: The Kremlin held six months ago that the threat was coming not from the West but from the South. Maybe this is the reason why the focus has been shifted from ballistic missiles to shorter-range missiles.

A: Ballistic missiles can be long and shorter range.

Q: I am afraid these are not overseas missiles.

A: In other words, these are not intercontinental missiles.

Q: That is right.

A: Under the 1997 treaty, Russia and the US have scrapped all medium- and shorter-range missiles. Only tactical missiles with a range of less than 500 kilometers are left. But our main resourcdes - that these pariah states may have in mind and may pose a threat - are intercontinental missiles that may be even more effective on shorter-range missions. We are not sure and nobody is sure that the deterrence system will work against reckless and fanatical regimes that may not care about their own people or not give a damn about the damage that may be caused to their underdeveloped industry or their population. In this sense the Russian and US logic of deterrence may prove useless there. This is why the Americans insist that they need not just deterrence but protection against them. Russia may also need such a system, but it will be not strategic. It will be a theatre missile defense system, because it will provide defence not from intercontinental missiles but from medium-range missiles that may reach our territory from Pakistan and some other countries. Going back to the question of asymmetrical response, you are asking if the Topol-M may be a panacea. Of course it's not. It's just a weapon. But it's a weapon that has put us 20 years ahead of the US, let alone the rest of the world. This missile may be deployed in silos and on above-ground mobile launching systems. In other words, it is invincible to attacks and guarantees retaliation. They may be armed with multiple warheads capable of piercing any missile defense. Nothing of the kind can be done from sea or air-based systems. So if limited funds are concentrated on where we are stronger than others, we will achieve better results. But if we spread them to where we are weaker than others, you will simply spend your money to little result. Our current programme of strategic forces represents the latter.

Q: Since this programme is a mistake, should the President interfere and have his say?

A: Yes of course, the President should have his say on this issue.

Q: But he hasn't.

A: But he hasn't.

Q: Another question concerning today's events. The US will soon carry out the first testing of its missile defense system. Does this mean that the Americans withdrew from the ABM Treaty a long time ago after preparing everything secretly?

A: No, it does not. I just want to remind you that the ABM Treaty does not eliminate missile defense to zero level.

Q: What is zero level?

A: This is when there is nothing at all, nothing is tested, nothing is developed, and nothing is deployed. The ABM Treaty allows each country to have a whole deployment area where it can have up to 100 anti-missiles and a number of large radars, everything that is needed for missile defense. This is not zero option like the one we had when medium- and shorter-range missiles were scrapped completely by Russia and America. You may probably remember that we had the SS-20, and they had the Pershing. So the ABM Treaty bans testing at undeclared sites. They have declared a site on the Kwajalein Island in the Pacific. And we have the Sary-Shagan testing range in Kazakhstan. Now they are kept at another place. They could not do this if they were still bound by the ABM Treaty.

Q: They couldn't do it today, but they can do it tomorrow.

A: Technically, they could have done it a long time ago, but legally, they couldn't conduct any testing at a site that had not been declared. However they need to do the testing there because their prime candidate is North Korea, and Korean missiles will fly through Alaska. So they need to test them in order to see how effective the system is. So of course they prepared for this for a long time. By the way, the ABM Treaty allows the testing of stationary land-based systems, not mobile ones, at the declared sites. However, having withdrawn from the ABM Treaty they will be free of any obligations and cannot do the testing on Kwajalein, but can test in Alaska without violating the treaty.

Q: The last question. Foreign Minister Ivanov and Secretary of State Powell -- I am sure you know that they are meeting in Canada to prepare a G-8 summit -- said today that a speedy ratification of the Moscow Treaty on strategic offensive weapons would be desirable. Is this true?

A: On strategic offensive reductions.

Q: Reductions, right. The Russian version uses the word potential, but I think there is no such word in English.

A: It exists in English, but it has a slightly different meaning.

Q: I am going to ask you as a member of the State Duma and a member of Yabloko, plus as deputy chairman of the Defense Committee, will you personally vote for the ratification of this treaty and urge your comrades in the Duma, in the faction and in the committee to do the same? Or do you have reservations?

A: I have very serious reservations. But now that we have ourselves weakened our positions at the talks so seriously, I could formulate our conclusions with regard to this treaty as follows: this is better than nothing. Now that we have no START-2 Treaty -- it is dead and we may forget it -- now that the 1991 START-1 Treaty is still there, but it no longer reflects present-day realities and existing levels of strategic weapons, it's better than nothing. However, there are big problems with this treaty, as it does not establish counting rules or the procedure for dismantling and destroying systems, or verification procedures. To some extent we may depend on START-1 which the sides have agreed to observe till the year 2009 when it expires, but not on everything. On the other hand, torpedoing the ratification of this new treaty would mean living with a seriously weakened position.

We may ratify it provided that these questions are clarified so that we know how to count these 2,200 warheads, how to verify that the sides really cut warheads to this level.

Q: I was listening to you and trying to understand whether this treaty is more of a political document to you and to experts in this field or not?

A: It's a 100-percent political document. Actually let's say it is a political treaty by 99 or 90 percent. Moreover, given such a strict and serious sphere as strategic weapons, it is more a gentleman's agreement at this point. The sides have agreed to reduce their nuclear warheads from 6,000 now to about 2,200. However, they did not have enough time to agree on what will be included in this number and how these strategic weapons will be reduced. It's a gentleman's agreement that was named a treaty for political reasons. To become a treaty, it is necessary to conduct additional consultations and agree on these issues. The ratification will make it possible to do so. And if we also adopt a reasonable development programme for our strategic weapons, this will stimulate American interest in serious negotiations.

Anchor: Thank you very much. We were talking to Alexei Arbatov, Vice-Chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee and a deputy of the Yabloko faction.

See also:
The ABM Treaty

Ekho Moskvi Radio Station, June 13, 2002

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