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Russia: Analyst -- U.S. Offer To Buy Russian Missiles 'Poisoned Bait In Mousetrap'

This week, Russian officials denied rumors that they were on the verge of striking a deal with the United States on the sale of S-300 missiles for use in the European portion of the projected U.S. missile defense shield. The reported offer, which was seen as a U.S. attempt to soften Russian resistance to the controversial plan, was quickly dismissed as having no connection to what Russia sees as the central issue of the missile defense dispute -- the scrapping of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini talks to Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer about the reasons behind Russia's refusal to consider the U.S. offer.

Moscow, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A report published this week (28 May) in "The New York Times" said the U.S. government was planning to make Russia an offer to buy its medium-range S-300 missile systems. In return, the United States was said to be hoping to secure Russian support for its controversial missile defense shield, a project that Russia has steadfastly opposed.

But the reported purchase was snubbed by senior Russian officials, who said the deal had yet to be offered, and would be promptly refused once it was. Following a meeting on 30 May with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on the sidelines of this week's NATO summit in Budapest, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov dismissed the reported offer as hypothetical:

"There are well-known speculations saying that from the American side, a proposal was made to trade our position on strategic stability, in particular the talks on ABM, for the purchase of some S-300 and other arms. [But] there were no talks nor any proposals on this, and they are not possible. Those are completely different matters that are absolutely not related."

The U.S. offer would use the Russian S-300 missile systems in the European portion of its planned defense shield. The offer was also reported as likely to have included financing for Russia's cash-strapped early warning radar system. It was seen as an attempt by the Bush administration to soften Russian resistance to the missile defense system.

But Ivanov reiterated on 30 May that Moscow would not rethink its position on missile defense. Russian officials have repeatedly argued that the proposed plan would destroy the strategic balance created by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and potentially spur a new arms race.

In a column this week in the English-language "The Moscow Times," Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer referred to the reported U.S. offer as "poisoned bait in a mousetrap." In an interview with RFE/RL, Felgenhauer said Moscow was convinced the U.S. offer was made to be refused:

"[Most of] the decision-making military and intelligence community here in Moscow does not believe that it was a genuine offer [by the U.S.], and that's why it was so openly rejected." Felgenhauer adds that some officials have speculated that the U.S. offer to help rebuild an aging radar system near the Siberian city of Irkutsk was meant to lure Russia into a deal that could compromise its intensifying relations with China -- a sore point for Washington in U.S.-Russia relations:

"[The offer] has been described by a Russian official as 'bait' because such a radar would be looking south at China. [The Russians] believe that the United States is trying to split the [growing] alliance between Russia and China and try to make Russia an ally in containing China in any possible conflict with Taiwan. So that is the thinking here in Moscow."

Another reason why the U.S. offer rings false in Moscow, Felgenhauer says, is because a similar deal, made during the Clinton administration, ended up costing Russia tens of millions of dollars. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. offered Russia $100 million to buy an S-300 system. But in the end, the Pentagon paid only $30 million to acquire the system's radar hardware, dropping the remaining contract and forcing Russian arms producers to pick up the slack.

Felgenhauer says the outcome caused widespread resentment in Russia's defense industry: "Russia didn't manage to get any compensation for the broken contract. And this, for many years, has been a much-talked-about point in the Russian arms trading community, because the factories that produced the hardware got stuck with it [and] weren't paid for it. And in the end the [state-controlled] Rosvooruzhenie arms exporter had to use government funds to repay them."

This, Felgenhauer adds, is "hardly giving [U.S. President George W.] Bush more credibility" as he attempts to drum up support in Europe and Russia for missile defense.

Felgenhauer says that Russian officials are also speculating that the supposed "leak" of information of the U.S. offer to Western newspapers was deliberately timed to soften European criticism of the plan going into this week's NATO summit in Budapest.

In his "The Moscow Times" column, he writes: "Russian officials believe the leaks were made deliberately so that Washington could tell its NATO allies that Moscow is on the verge of making a deal and that they shouldn't be overly concerned about the impending abrogation of the ABM treaty."

He adds: "[Russia's] immediate and unequivocal rejection of the proposal was intended to diplomatically outflank Washington and to reinforce European opposition to NMD."

If those were in fact Moscow's intentions, it may have partially succeeded. In the final communique issued on 30 May at the close of the Budapest summit, all references to the ABM treaty were dropped, indicating that the disagreement between the U.S. and Europe on the future of the treaty remains unresolved.

The Reuters news agency, citing sources close to the negotiations, reported that the U.S. failed to persuade the Europeans to include in the communique a statement saying the NATO alliance faces a common missile threat. Such a statement would have helped validate U.S. plans to build a missile defense.

Felgenhauer says the reported U.S. offer, in addition to appearing an awkward diplomatic misstep, may further solidify anti-U.S. sentiment among Russia's hard-line policymakers:

"Among the Russian ruling elite, among those who make decisions on defense and foreign policy matters, there are different lobbies. But there aren't any serious pro-American lobbies left right now in the Kremlin, and there are people who can gain a lot from a worsening -- or at least a partial, controlled worsening -- of relations with the United States. Until now, Russian foreign policy worked from the assumption that if the [U.S.] really did abrogate the treaty, it would be good for Russia, because it will allow Russia to use this American move for anti-American propaganda."

Felgenhauer says that in its offer, the Bush administration may actually be advancing the cause of Russian lobbies pushing for a clean break with the U.S. and favoring the pursuit of military cooperation with countries that Washington does not want to see well-armed. These lobbies, he says, "want to get an official Kremlin go-ahead to sell to China and Iran the very sophisticated weapons they are asking for."

In a cash-strapped country like Russia, Felgenhauer adds, cooperation with such nations makes financial sense. Military deals with China and other countries, he says, "would bring in a lot more money than the sale of S-300 missiles to the United States."