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Western Press Review: Clinton And Putin Disagree On Missile Defense

Prague, 5 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today is dominated by this weekend's Moscow summit between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Most commentators focused on the two leaders' stalemate over amending the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, known as the ABM treaty. The U.S. wants to build a limited missile defense that could intercept a few missiles coming from what it calls rogue states, such as North Korea or Iraq.


The British newspaper Financial Times writes today that the Russians did not give the green light to U.S. plans for a limited nuclear missile defense shield. But, the daily says, the two leaders appeared to narrow their differences over the proposed plan and managed to produce a joint statement of principles.

Clinton, the Financial Times says, must pay heed to Russian concerns that in dealing with missile threats from rogue states the U.S. could come up with what the paper calls "a cure which is worse than the disease." The editorial says this concern is felt not just by Russia, but also by China and even the U.S.'s European allies.

But the editorial adds that the summit produced some hope that the U.S. and Russia may begin to view their security in more co-operative terms. "Certainly," it says, "the summit's two concrete accords on the destruction of weapons-grade plutonium and on shared early warning about missile launches, provide some hope."

The paper says that tracking U.S. and Russian ballistic missile launches could eventually lead to tracking launches by third parties if they were aimed at the U.S, or Russia. This system, says the FT, would then "provide the beginnings of a cooperative approach to countering missile threats from countries such as North Korea."


The Times of London writes today that the U.S.-Russian summit was the trickiest in years. The U.S. says that its proposed shield would not defend the U.S. against Russia's nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the shield would violate the ABM treaty, and Russia believes that it would give the Americans a strategic edge.

If the issue of missile defense is not handled skillfully, the paper says, "it has greater potential to set Washington and Moscow at loggerheads than any of the past decades disputes over the Balkans, Chechnya, or even NATO enlargement."

But the London Times editorial says that both presidents sense the danger and "appear determined to avoid it," putting huge effort into the summit and talking "long and hard." Putin praised the quality of negotiations with the U.S., and Clinton declared the Russian leader capable of building a strong, prosperous country while preserving freedom and the rule of law.

Ultimately, the Times says, the "great prize" of resolving the missile question eluded the two leaders. The summit ended with an agreement to disagree on the missile defense shield. But the Americans did agree that the ABM treaty is the cornerstone of strategic security, and the Russians conceded that there are problems with the treaty and that the threat from rogue states is real.

The editorial closes by suggesting that Clinton delay making any serious decisions on missile defense while "Russia's readiness to adapt the ABM to a changed strategic environment is put to the test."


In today's New York Times, commentator William Safire says a mistake was made in Moscow during the Clinton-Putin summit.

Safire writes that Clinton conceded too easily to Russian arguments against missile defense. Clinton, he says, reinforced the importance of the ABM treaty by calling it a cornerstone of strategic security and agreeing to enhance its viability.

Safire writes that Putin, "wants to make us pay for his permission [to build a missile shield] by slashing out offensive missile forces in Start Three down to levels our military leaders consider imprudent." Putin agreed that missile threats from other nations represents a change in the strategic situation that the ABM treaty was built on. But Safire says that concession only means "allowing the U.S. to defend its cities against rogue nations, terrorists, and accidental launches only in ways that Moscow approves."

Safire says Clinton paid for Putin's permission to tinker with the ABM treaty with an enormous concession: the reduction of U.S. and Russian arsenals. "By mistakenly linking reductions in Start Three -- our missile offense -- to the minor modifications of ABM -- our missile defense," Safire says, "Clinton played into Russian hands, making future arms negotiation more difficult for his American successor."


German comment is equally negative. "There's a bitter wind blowing in Moscow," writes Jacques Schuster in Germany's Die Welt. "Since the new Russian president took office, a lot has changed. More clearly than before, NATO and the United States are perceived as threatening." Schuster says Putin aims to restore Russia's great-power status -- not only by shoring up the country's defenses, but also by extending Russian influence abroad.

"In this regard," Schuster observes, "Clinton's trip looks more like the visit of an American president during the time of detente than like the claps on the shoulder of the Yeltsin era." He notes that the only agreement was to create a joint early-warning center to identify missile launches. In all other areas, the two sides simply agreed to disagree. Schuster concludes: "The Cold War may be over. But the summer has certainly cooled off."


Commentator Klaus Brill writes in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung about the need to maintain what he calls the "balance of fright." Invoking ancient Greek history, he points out that when Athens began to strengthen its fortifications, rival Spartans suspected it was planning a war.

The ABM treaty, Brill says, is based on mutual vulnerability. The treaty limits each side to just a small, localized defense against incoming missiles. "With these limitations," Brill writes, "each superpower remained purposefully vulnerable to the countless intercontinental ballistic missiles of the other side. Only in this way could the balance of fright be maintained."

Amending the treaty, the German commentator says, risks disturbing that balance. He notes that not only Russia, but also Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine must agree to any modifications.

"And just like in ancient Greece," Brill concludes, "it's still about fear, trust, and calculation. One can only wish for Clinton and Putin -- and for us all -- that they will do better than the Athenians and Spartans. They waged war against each other for many decades."


In today's Los Angeles Times, Alan Cranston and Tad Daley write that building a U.S. national missile defense would be a mistake. Cranston is a former U.S. senator who now heads the Global Security Institute directing the Nuclear Weapon Elimination Initiative. Daley is vice president of the institute and associate director of the initiative.

The commentators say that nuclear defense begets more nuclear offense and diminishes overall security. They say U.S. plans to deploy a national missile defense, along with its demands that Russia and the U.S. retain thousands of nuclear warheads, "leave little hope for preventing some kind of nuclear conflagration in the 21st century."

The U.S. argument is that its missile shield would not be able to defend against Russia's many missiles. But the authors counter with these words: "No missile defense has ever been contemplated that could defend against a massive first strike from arsenals as large as those the United States and Soviet Union developed during the Cold War and still maintain. But, 30 years ago, it dawned on both Moscow and Washington that a defensive capability against nuclear attack would enhance the capability to launch a nuclear attack. Why? Because it would allow that state to initiate a massive first strike, then defend against what few weapons remained to the 'first struck.' Missile defense," the authors say, "doesn't provide the capacity to defend against a first strike. It provides the capacity to launch one."

If the U.S. does build a missile shield, the authors argue, Russia will have a strong incentive to maintain the "launch on warning" policy, under which it would launch its missiles as soon as it spots incoming missiles. That policy has already brought the world several times, in their words, "within minutes of accidental atomic apocalypse. Even worse," they continue, "in some sort of future political confrontation, Moscow might be tempted to strike first. With NMD in place, Russian policymakers may conclude: Use them or lose them."

Cranston and Daley say missile defense works much like NATO expansion, in that "it will likely engender the eventuality it intends to guard against." They write that NATO expansion, which its proponents portray as a hedge against an expansionist Russia, makes such a Russia more likely.


In today's New York Times, Michael Wines writes that the White House this weekend demonstrated real concerns over the state of democratic freedoms in Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited the Moscow office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty yesterday, and yesterday evening Clinton gave an exclusive hour-long interview to Ekho Moskvy radio, an all-news station that is part of Russia's Media-MOST empire.

Wines says the two appearances underscored the sub-theme of the arms-control meeting: "the shaky state of democratic freedoms won after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse."

Wines writes that although Putin reassured Clinton that building a democratic society was one of his priorities, many say that his rise to power has brought an increasingly strong effort to bring the press, religious leaders, and other potential opponents to heel. He writes that Putin's passion for the strong center he believes Russians need has trumped other concerns. This, Wines says, is evidenced by Putin's seeding of the top ranks of his administration with former military and KGB officials, and his clampdown on the news media.

(Susan Caskie in Prague contributed to this report.)