"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
U.S., Russia Still Seeking Common Ground on Missile Defense

Wade Boese

After meeting on October 21 in Shanghai, President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reported progress in their talks on missile defenses and nuclear-force cuts, but the two leaders reached no agreements and remained divided over the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Speaking at a joint press conference following their third face-to-face meeting, the two presidents sounded optimistic about being able to fashion a new U.S.-Russian strategic relationship. Putin said he believes that an understanding that the two countries could “reach agreements” exists, and Bush declared that both countries see progress in their “efforts to build a new strategic framework.” The presidents were attending a summit for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation members’ heads of state.

Yet other remarks made by the two leaders at the press conference revealed that they remain apart on the key issue of what to do about the ABM Treaty, which prohibits the United States and Russia from building nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles. Despite Russian, as well as Chinese, opposition, the Bush administration has made clear it wants to get rid of the treaty so that it can pursue a layered missile defense consisting of land-, sea-, air-, and potentially space-based elements. The treaty limits the United States to 100 ground-based missile interceptors in North Dakota and bans all sea-, air-, space-, and mobile land-based systems.

At the October 21 press conference, Bush described the treaty as “outdated” and “dangerous” and repeated his call for the two countries to work together to “move beyond” the accord. Putin, however, said the treaty is “an important element of stability,” although he again implied that Moscow is open to amending the accord. A U.S. government spokesman interviewed October 24 said that, to his knowledge, neither the United States nor Russia had proposed specific treaty amendments.

Bush further argued that the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington made the case stronger for abandoning the ABM Treaty because the treaty prevents the United States from defending against the possibility of terrorists using ballistic missiles to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Putin, who joined Chinese President Jiang Zemin a day earlier in supporting the ABM Treaty, questioned Bush’s reasoning, saying, “It would be difficult for me to agree that some terrorists will be able to capture intercontinental missiles and will be able to use them.”

Near the close of the press conference, Bush acknowledged his differences with Putin, commenting, “We’ll continue working with each other and see if we can’t find common ground on the ABM Treaty.”

No Deadline

Prior to the Shanghai meeting, press reports based on interviews with unnamed Bush administration officials suggested that, at their meeting, Bush would tell Putin of U.S. intentions to withdraw from the ABM Treaty by the end of the year. But national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters after the presidents’ joint press conference that Bush had delivered no deadline for U.S. treaty withdrawal.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also traveled to Shanghai, underscored October 22 that Bush had given no formal or informal notification of U.S. intention to withdraw from the treaty and said, “We are under no constraints with respect to our thinking.”

Both Powell and Rice made clear that the key issue for the Bush administration is ensuring that the ABM Treaty does not limit U.S. missile defense testing. While emphasizing that Bush does not want the U.S. missile defense program to be “constrained artificially” by the treaty, Powell also noted that the administration is “looking at” Russian suggestions that the United States could “probably do moretesting” than it thought it could under the treaty. Rice later told The New York Times that she believes Russia is starting to see near-term U.S. missile defense testing as not a threat, suggesting a possible deal could be worked out to relax the treaty’s constraints on testing without having Washington withdraw from the accord. At the same time, however, the Pentagon announced October 25 that it had delayed testing activities because they could have potentially violated the treaty, which the Bush administration said it would not do. (See Pentagon Puts Off Missile Defense Testing, Citing ABM Treaty.)

Speaking October 22 to the private Council on Foreign Relations, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE) said he believes that the administration’s missile defense testing program could be carried out without violating the ABM Treaty. The senator also asserted that he thinks the president “seems to be moving in the direction where he may not unilaterally walk away from the ABM Treaty.”

Nuclear Reductions

Pre-Shanghai press reports also suggested Bush would tell Putin the much-anticipated level to which the United States would be willing to reduce its offensive strategic forces as part of the envisioned strategic framework and as a way to help win Russian acquiescence to U.S. missile defense plans. The president, however, said he offered no specific number.

Bush explained October 21 that the United States is still “analyzing” its nuclear arsenal. Rice and Powell both said Washington would soon have a figure for the Kremlin, presumably before Putin’s November 13-15 visit to the United States.


Currently, Russia and the United States are committed to deploying no more than 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads each by the end of this year. Putin has proposed cutting both arsenals to 1,500 strategic warheads in the future, but Bush has not indicated whether he would go that low, saying only that he supports significant reductions.

Putin said October 21 that both sides reaffirmed their “mutual intention” to reduce strategic weapons. The task now, Putin commented, is to “develop parameters of such reductions and to design a reliable and verifiable method” for making the cuts. The Bush administration, however, has repeatedly insisted it has no interest in negotiated reductions, voicing a preference for unilateral mutual reductions.

Rice downplayed the lack of any formal agreement at the Shanghai meeting and appeared to be seeking to lower expectations for the upcoming November meeting as well. At her Shanghai press conference, Rice stated, “We’re not looking for any specific breakthrough at any given meeting.” She further remarked that the two sides would be working on U.S.-Russian strategic relations before, during, and after Putin’s November visit, which will be split between Washington and Bush’s Texas ranch.