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Russia: Putin's Meeting With Bush To Focus On Missile Defense

  • Andrew Tully

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush will discuss a wide range of subjects when they meet this weekend in Genoa, Italy. Their talks will almost certainly touch on United Nations sanctions against Iraq and the integration of the Balkan states into Europe. But RFE/RL Washington correspondent Andrew Tully says the dominant topic is likely to be Bush's plan to deploy a missile-defense system. Here is his report.

Washington, 16 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the second time in a month, the Russian and U.S. presidents are due to meet -- this time in Genoa, Italy, during the annual summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized democracies plus Russia. Last month, the two leaders had their first meeting in Slovenia.

This meeting between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin will likely focus more on strategic issues -- specifically the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM -- than on the trade and other economic issues usually at the top of the G-7 agenda. At least, that is the impression that Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, gave at two recent meetings with reporters in Washington.

On Thursday (12 July), Rice gave a luncheon speech and then replied to questions. The next day, she briefed reporters at the White House. Both appearances centered on the coming U.S.-Russia summit. And both were dominated by Bush's desire to build a missile-defense system.

Bush certainly intends to deal with other matters, both with Putin and with the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Indeed, because the G-7 is mostly European, strategic as well as economic issues unique to the Continent are likely to predominate.

The most delicate issue facing Europe is the future of the Balkans. Rice said Bush is eager to discuss with each of his G-7 counterparts -- and with all the NATO allies -- ways to integrate the region into Europe.

"With each of these leaders, and with our European allies, the president has stressed that America is committed to helping this region become fully a part of Europe -- whole, free, and at peace. He has also stressed that the only way to make this vision real is for the United States, NATO, and the EU to do it together. That means, my friends, that the United States will not always grab the headlines. But it does mean that the United States is committed to partnership with our European allies, and that our commitment remains strong."

But when Bush meets with Putin, the dominant topic is likely to be missile defense. Russia, and some U.S. allies, object to the system, arguing that it would return the world to a dangerous arms race. The Bush administration counters that the system is meant to target not Russia or China, but smaller states like Iraq or North Korea that may try to use their limited missile arsenals to terrorize or blackmail it.

Yesterday (15 July), both Russia and China criticized a successful U.S. test of a proposed missile-defense system. Russia's Foreign Ministry said the missile system threatens to undermine global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation treaties -- including the ABM Treaty. The U.S. says that treaty is irrelevant now that the Cold War is over.

During Friday's (13 July) briefing, Rice said the world has changed dramatically since the ABM Treaty was signed three decades ago. She outlined the change this way:

"There was a kind of attitude, I think, here and in Moscow, given the nature of the relationship, that if it was good for the Soviet Union, it was bad for the United States, and vice versa. That's why we negotiated every warhead and every [other] element of our security relationship. It was regulating a very hostile relationship. This is now a normal relationship between Russia and the United States, where -- yes -- we will have some differences. But, you know, we have differences with the British from time to time."

Rice also defended the missile-defense system by reiterating the U.S. position that the current relationship between Russia and Washington is far from hostile.

"The limited defenses that we want to build in the context of this new strategic framework are aimed at countries that would blackmail us, countries that hate our values, countries that would try to hold us hostage so that we could not have action, for instance, against a Saddam Hussein. That's not Russia."

Rice stood by Bush's assessment of Putin after the two leaders met in Slovenia a month ago. At the time, Bush called Putin "trustworthy" -- a remark that evoked incredulity, if not scorn, among some analysts -- even those who are his political supporters. She said Bush and Putin conversed together as none of their predecessors had.

"I've been in a lot of meetings with Russian leaders. It [the Slovenia meeting] was a different meeting. It was a meeting in which they carried on a conversation rather than a monologue followed by another monologue. It was a meeting in which they had an opportunity to have -- really -- exchanges about very difficult and delicate subjects in complete candor. It was a meeting in which nobody pulled any punches. But nobody got mad."

A congenial relationship between Bush and Putin would seem to bode well for Russia eventually accepting the missile-defense system. But that prospect remains unlikely, according to Ivo Daalder, who served on the White House's National Security Council under Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Daalder says the problem lies primarily with officials in the Bush administration who support missile defense. He says they are Cold War veterans who once supported the Strategic Defense Initiative -- or SDI -- the space-based missile-defense system proposed in the early 1980s by Ronald Reagan, when he was the U.S. president. According to Daalder, they have been trying to get Washington to build some kind of missile-defense system since then. He says they have always seen the ABM Treaty as an unnecessary impediment to the U.S. effort to protect itself.

"This is not something new. These are the same people who were in favor of SDI 15 years ago, when there was a Cold War. Then, of course, it was against the Russians. Now it is not clear against whom, but it's at least not the Russians."

Missile defense is not the only contentious issue between Washington and Moscow. Most recently, they publicly disagreed about whether to modify the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

The U.S. and Britain had drawn up a plan to tighten the arms sanctions on Iraq, while easing the sanctions on civilian goods that the country is permitted to import. Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- known as the "P-5" -- the only objection came from Russia, a close ally of Iraq. But because each permanent member holds veto power over council votes, the new sanctions plan was abandoned.

On 12 July, Rice expressed frustration over this development.

"It's been hard, tough sledding to get this through the P-5 and the UN Security Council, because the Russians have not been willing to go along."

Rice said the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been mounting what she called a "propaganda" campaign alleging that the UN sanctions were hurting his people. She said the Iraqi people are being hurt by Saddam, not by the sanctions. Rice noted that in northern Iraq, where humanitarian aid is distributed by Western allies, Iraqis suffer no privation.

But elsewhere in the country, Rice said, Saddam has been funneling aid away from the people. She said this, too, will be an important issue when Bush meets with Putin.

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