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U.S.: Public, Private Statements Conflict On Deal To Amend ABM Treaty

  • Andrew Tully

Publicly, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is downplaying expectations that a deal is imminent on amending the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM, so Washington can proceed with plans to deploy a missile-defense shield. Privately, however, officials say such an agreement may be announced when Bush meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at Bush's Texas ranch in mid-November. One national security analyst, however, believes all the fuss over the ABM treaty may ultimately be for nothing.

Washington, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Bush administration is emphatically stating that no breakthrough is imminent between Washington and Moscow over amending the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, known as the ABM.

But this public insistence comes as administration sources are telling the American media privately that a deal is all but complete.

These conflicting signals revolve around Bush's plans to develop a system that would intercept missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction that might be fired at the U.S. by nations the administration characterizes as "rogue states" -- such as Iraq or North Korea.

The system envisaged by Bush would not be sophisticated enough to neutralize the large number of missiles that could be fired by a nation such as Russia. If it could, it would upset the delicate nuclear balance between the two countries.

But because of that potential, the ABM treaty forbids either nation from developing such a system or even the testing the system's components long before it could be deployed. And Russia has opposed amending the treaty to make an exception for a missile-defense system. Moscow says such a shield could encourage the kind of arms race that existed in 1972 -- in the middle of the Cold War -- when the ABM treaty was signed.

Bush has said repeatedly that the treaty is no longer relevant because it is predicated on the assumption that Russia and the U.S. are enemies. Bush says that because the Cold War is over, there is no need for such a treaty, and he has made a great show of his personal rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin to support his position.

At the same time, Bush has indicated the U.S. will withdraw from the ABM treaty if Russia insists on not allowing it to be amended. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, described the president's position this way in a press briefing yesterday at the White House: "The president has made clear that he believes that we are going to have to move beyond the ABM treaty for two reasons. First of all, because it constrains our ability to fully explore the possibilities for a missile defense. And secondly, because he believes that it is not representative of the kind of relationship that we have with the Russians."

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, however, Russia has pledged support for and cooperated with Bush's war against terrorism. And there have even been signs the U.S. and Russia are coming closer together on the ABM issue.

One such sign is a statement made on 25 October by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld said the U.S. has decided to delay testing of some components of the missile-defense system to avoid violating the treaty. Another sign is a series of reports in various newspapers -- attributed to anonymous administration sources -- that the U.S. and Russia are close to a breakthrough that would leave the treaty intact but allow Bush to proceed with plans for the missile-defense system.

The most recent of these reports was published yesterday. It said both countries will reduce their nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds to allay any concerns that Russia might have about the missile-defense tests planned by the U.S. These reports say a formal agreement is likely to be ready in time for Putin's visit to Bush's Texas ranch on 13-15 November.

Bush's top national security officials were quick to respond to these accounts. The first was Rice, during her White House press briefing. She said U.S. and Russian negotiators are narrowing their differences but emphasized they have yet to strike a bargain on the ABM treaty: "We believe that we're understanding each other better, that we're making progress. But I would caution against expecting any particular deal at any particular time. We have a series of meetings that we've been having with the Russian president --- [in] Ljubljana, Genoa, the recent meeting in Shanghai. And as you know, President Putin will be here shortly. So I would caution against expecting any particular deal at any particular time, but we do believe that we and the Russians are making progress on redefining our new relationship."

Only minutes later, at a Pentagon press briefing, Rumsfeld was asked if his latest trip to Moscow, which begins tomorrow, will involve clearing up the final details of an agreement to amend the ABM treaty: "If those things were all tied up with a ribbon, I doubt if I'd be going."

Rice and Rumsfeld spoke as Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at the State Department. The men spent three hours discussing the missile shield, strategic arms issues, and the war in Afghanistan.

One analyst believes the discussion about missile defense and Cold War treaties may ultimately amount to nothing. She is Anna Nelson, a professor of history at American University in Washington who specializes in national security issues.

Nelson says the attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania in September show that the threat faced by the U.S. is not from so-called "rogue states" firing missiles but from terrorists using unconventional weapons of opportunity.

And Nelson says the war America is fighting in Afghanistan is further evidence of the kind of weapons it must rely on in the immediate future. She points to a $200-billion contract the U.S. government awarded in recent days to the Lockheed Martin Corporation for just such weapons: high-tech, radar-evading jet fighters.

According to Nelson, the missile-defense system actually appears to be low among Bush's priorities, despite his administration's statements to the contrary. She says Putin recognizes that and is therefore willing to drop his objections to the missile shield: "I think it [the missile defense system] is off the front of the table. I just think it's on the back burner. And I think for that reason Putin is probably going to go along with it."

Another reason Nelson believes Putin is being so accommodating about the missile shield, as well as the U.S.-led war on terrorism, is what she says is Russia's sense of destiny as a country that identifies itself more with Europe than with Asia: "[Putin] clearly has decided to get along with the West, and it may be part of that old Russian sense that they are Europe and not Asia, especially now that Asia seems so problematic to him and he's lost so much of Central Asia. Russia is now a European country, in their view. Never mind that it goes all the way to Vladivostok."

According to Nelson, Putin's choice of the West over the East is more than merely cultural. She says the Russian president realizes that his country's economic future and its political security lie with Europe and the U.S.