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Russia: Accord On Missile Talks Indicates Warming Ties With U.S.

  • Andrew Tully

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush surprised the world on Sunday (22 July) by announcing that they will link negotiations on offensive and defensive missiles. This brings Russia closer to accepting -- if not endorsing -- U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully looks at what the agreement entails.

Washington, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- International policy analysts agree that the U.S.-Russian statement on arms control negotiations indicates improved relations between the two countries. But the same analysts differ on the substance of the document itself.

The three-sentence statement issued 22 July in Genoa says only that the subjects of defensive and offensive weapons will be "interrelated." That means that both sides are willing to negotiate a reduction in offensive ballistic missiles as well as defensive missiles.

In other words, Putin has agreed not to reject categorically Bush's plan to set up a missile defense system. This is explicitly forbidden by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972.

Bush says the treaty is outdated now that the Soviet Union no longer exists, the Cold War is over and Russia -- still bound by Soviet-era treaties -- is no longer America's enemy. Until now, Putin has argued that ABM is still relevant, and that any U.S. deployment of a missile defense system would also revive the prohibitively costly and politically destabilizing arms race of the Cold War.

Ted Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, an independent policy research establishment in Washington. He told RFE/RL that a reduction in U.S. offensive weapons would allow Russia to reduce its own offensive arsenal, and thereby reduce the high cost of maintaining it. As a result, he says, Putin can more easily accept a U.S. missile defense system.

"They [the Russians] might as well get something for giving their acquiescence, if not blessing, to modifying the ABM Treaty and allowing the U.S. to go ahead with missile defenses."

Bush said 23 July in Rome that the Genoa agreement gives Russia and U.S. allies the time to consider the significance of his missile defense system. But he made it clear that he will proceed with deploying the system eventually with or without their approval.

Putin will need this time, particularly to persuade Russia's military leaders to accept the idea of a U.S. missile defense system, according to Edward Atkeson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, an independent policy institute.

"Putin has a problem within his military leadership. I don't know how deep his roots go over there in the ministry -- the Defense Ministry -- but we've got to give him time to sort of get his own house in order so that you don't have a bunch of old-time military types, you know, coming out publicly against him."

Atkeson told RFE/RL that he, too, sees the Genoa agreement as a significant step forward in resolving the dispute over U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system. But another analyst at CSIS disagrees. She is Celeste Wallander, the director of the institute's Russia and Eurasia Program. She says the statement says nothing new.

Wallander says she is skeptical about Carpenter's assumption that Bush is making any concessions to Putin about reducing offensive nuclear weapons. She notes that the statement issued by the two presidents does not mention any reductions in offensive weapons -- although it doesn't rule it out, either.

"To agree that these discussions -- that strategic offensive and defensive weapons are linked does not agree [mean] that you will come up with an arms control treaty that trades one off against the other."

In fact, Wallander says, the ABM Treaty makes the same link between offensive and defensive weapons. Therefore, she says, the agreement reached in Genoa is, again, nothing new, but a reaffirmation of a concept that is nearly 30 years old.

But Wallander says the agreement shows that relations between Russia and the U.S. are improving. She says that is encouraging given the strain between the countries earlier this year -- highlighted when each government expelled 46 diplomats representing the other nation.

Carpenter says the Genoa agreement indicates only modestly improved relations. Lurking in the background is Russia's recent cooperation treaty with China. He says Bush made what he called an "important concession" on offensive weapons to minimize the threat of even closer relations between Moscow and Beijing.

"In essence, we're [the U.S. is] trying to pull Russia back from that relationship. And I think there was a realization that some of the things the U.S. had done in the past several years had really antagonized Russia, and that missile defense threatened to be another, perhaps even bigger, issue that would antagonize Russians, driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese."

As for the good personal relations between Bush and Putin, Carpenter expressed disapproval, saying it is never a good idea to personalize diplomacy. And Wallander says personal friendliness can blind one leader to the shortcomings of another. She noted that some observers said this was true of the cordial relations between Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, and Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. She says Clinton's opponents criticized his good personal relationship with Yeltsin, saying:

"That then led to policy mistakes because the Clinton administration didn't understand leadership dynamics in Russia. They [U.S. officials] excused Yeltsin too much because of the personal connection. They thought he could get things done because they could get things done with him, so they mistakenly thought that Yeltsin could live up to his commitments, and he couldn't because he was -- you know, the political situation at home prevented him from doing that."

But Wallander stresses that there is no evidence that either Bush or Putin is being misled by their mutual high regard. In fact, Wallander says, their relationship has made it possible for them to improve ties between their two countries so far. Nevertheless, she says, this friendship should still be scrutinized carefully.