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Russia/U.S.: Analysis -- What's Behind Putin's Remarks On Missile Defense?

  • Jeremy Bransten

Early this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited a group of U.S. journalists to the Kremlin for a lengthy news conference during which he discussed his recent meeting with President George W. Bush and the future of U.S.-Russian relations. Many of Putin's comments dealt with Washington's plans to develop a missile defense system. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to two analysts -- one American, the other European -- who assess what's behind Putin's remarks.

Prague, 21 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- During his talk with U.S. journalists at the Kremlin on Monday, June 18, President Vladimir Putin threatened to fit Russia's nuclear missiles with multiple warheads if the United States pushes ahead with its missile defense plan.

Putin said Russia wanted to cooperate with the United States, but would not hesitate to take unilateral steps to protect itself if Washington refused to take Moscow's concerns into consideration. That, he said, could unravel the entire security arrangement between the two countries and start a new arms race.

Putin's remarks were carefully targeted and, as expected, had an instant effect, becoming fodder for commentators and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic. Many asked: Was the Russian president bluffing?

Christopher Langton is a defense analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He says it is hard to evaluate whether Putin's words were meant to be taken literally. But, he notes, Russia does have the technical capability to follow through on Putin's threat. At issue, he says, is the cost:

"Can they actually do this? Of course, they can abrogate a treaty if they wish, particularly a bilateral one. That's their own choice. Personally, I don't think it's very likely, but it's possible. Secondly, the technical issue of multiple warheads is possible and feasible -- but it is expensive."

U.S. analyst Padma Desai, writing in today's Financial Times, argues that financial considerations are key -- and continue to be overlooked by many Western politicians and commentators. Desai notes that despite increased oil revenues, Russia allocates more than a quarter of its income to debt repayment and has an annual military budget of only $5 billion a year -- a large part of which is now spent in Chechnya. The United States, by contrast, allocates $330 billion a year for military spending. In this context, Desai calls Putin's threat "little more than noise and cheap bargaining."

In his remarks Monday, Putin also said -- for the first time -- that Russia might be amenable to altering the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Washington calls outdated and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to scrap. Putin's threats, therefore, can be seen as an attempt to renegotiate the ABM Treaty instead of agreeing to its liquidation.

David Smith is a former senior arms-control negotiator in the administration (1989-1993) of former U.S. President George Bush. He tells RFE/RL he does not believe Putin has settled on a definitive policy toward the United States.

"I don't know that President Putin has a concerted strategy here. What I hear from President Putin's appearance with President Bush in Ljubljana, and what I hear from the press conference or press interview that he did...[Monday], is a set of very mixed feelings, a set of probes to see exactly where the Americans are going, how much cooperation they're willing to engage in, how serious they are."

In recent months, Russia has especially emphasized its desire for closer relations with Western Europe. Given the largely tepid response within the European Union to the Bush missile-defense plan, many commentators have speculated that Putin's comments were also aimed at Western European politicians. They see in them an effort to strengthen Western European opposition to missile defense and thus drive a wedge between Washington and its key NATO allies.

The problem, as Christopher Langton notes in London, is that Russia has little to offer the Europeans in exchange. Several months ago, Moscow said it would unveil its own strategic defense initiative -- but so far details have remained sketchy at best.

"This was a plan which was put forward when the first Bush administration statements were made, as a sort of counterbalance and something to offer to the Europeans. We said at the time that this was a political statement, that there didn't appear to be any technical or military idea as to how that would actually shape up. And I believe, although I'm not an expert, that's probably the situation today."

David Smith, in the United States, says that because most of the United States' NATO allies are now run by left-leaning governments, they are naturally inclined to view Bush and his ideas with some suspicion.

"Let's take a look at what's happened in the past week with George Bush. First of all, if you look at all of our NATO allies, there are really only three conservative governments -- the United States being one of them. Italy and Spain are the other two. Italy and Spain have supported [President Bush]. Interestingly, all the rest of our allies are run by social democratic parties, and they have voiced the same kind of skepticism that the Democratic Party here in Washington is voicing. So, I don't know that all of this is that strange."

But, says Smith, the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction. He says he does not believe Putin will succeed in gaining any support for his position from European NATO states:

"That said, Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly is leaning over very, very far to try and support [Bush] and do the best he can within the political context that he has to operate in, in Britain. But I think he reached out three-quarters of the way with some of the statements that he made. Also, the same for some of the other leaders. You're starting to get a change. People are realizing that [Bush is] serious. I'm starting to hear industry in France and Germany saying, 'We'd be interested. We want to talk about this.' [Silvio] Berlusconi, the new prime minister of Italy, said: 'Maybe we could do this as a cooperative program.' So I think you're starting to see something. I wouldn't present Europe as a monolithic bloc."

Smith says the Bush administration will continue its dialogue with Moscow and with skeptics at home. But he says the feeling is very strong within conservative circles in Washington, among which he counts himself, that weapon proliferation is a very real threat -- and one that must be countered:

"You've already got an arms race. You've got a lot of countries out there, who for one reason or another -- despite all the intellectual arguments that may be made in Washington and Moscow -- are willing to devote scarce resources to acquiring ballistic missiles, to increasing their range, to increasing their accuracy, to looking at the different kinds of warheads that they can carry, to acquiring weapons of mass destruction. That kind of a race is already on. And it's on because we are absolutely defenseless against those weapons. That's what's creating the race. When America says, 'We're going to use our technology to block that avenue,' that is the greatest non-proliferation measure you can have."

As long as this is the view that prevails in Washington, it is not likely that President Putin will be able to prevent the United States' continuing work on building a missile defense system.