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by Michael R. Gordon
Tuesday, April 25, 2000
The New York Times
MOSCOW, April 24 -- A decade after the collapse of Communism appeared to make superpower arms controls routine, the old disputes over missile defenses have suddenly returned to the forefront of United States-Russian relations. And though experts say new rules of the nuclear game are technically feasible, the issue has been caught up in American election politics and Russian suspicions.
At issue are the fundamental principles that Washington and Moscow have accepted for almost three decades, that the only way to encourage reductions in strategic arms is to restrict ways to counter them -- an understanding codified in the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
But a new-found American interest in developing a missile defense, which proponents say would defend against "rogue" states like North Korea and Iran, has called the treaty into question.
So far, Russia has strongly opposed any changes in the treaty. And in recent weeks, President-elect Vladimir V. Putin has strengthened his hand in the dispute by getting his Parliament to ratify the long-delayed nuclear arms reduction treaty known as Start II and conditioning the accord on continued United States adherence to the ABM treaty.
With Republicans in the United States Senate equally adamant about developing antimissile defenses, resolving the dispute during President Clinton's visit to Moscow in early June will be difficult at best.
"It is a very sensitive period," said Anatoly Diakov, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Arms Control and the Environment. "Both sides have to decide whether to support the arms control regime or destroy it."
The increasingly heated debate is something of a surprise because arms control had ceased to be a bitter bone of contention in recent years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the expectation was that the hard bargaining over warheads, missiles and bombers was over. The two sides were no longer adversaries. And while arms control talks often lagged, that seemed little more than a matter of benign neglect.
But the demise of the Soviet Union also left the United States without a consensus on the threats that confront the nation and on how best to reduce the risk of nuclear war.
Republican lawmakers in Washington have cast the heart of old nuclear arms controls, the ABM accord, as an anachronism that needs to be radically modified or abandoned altogether so the United States can build an antimissile shield against "rogue" states.
The Clinton administration sought to blunt the political assault from the right by proposing a limited defense, which would require amending the ABM treaty, but not jettisoning it.
The administration says the system would be designed to protect all 50 states from an attack by several dozen warheads carried by North Korean missiles or half a dozen warheads mounted on Iranian rockets. The plan, which would be carried out by 2005, would involve the construction of a radar in Alaska, the deployment of 100 interceptors there, and upgrades to five existing radars.
But the Clinton plan is too little for many Republicans and too much for the Russians.
Russian officials have said they doubt that the United States would go through all the cost and trouble of developing a national missile defense just to counter tiny North Korea. And while the 6,000 warheads in Russia's arsenals are more than enough to overwhelm a limited defense, Russian officials worry that the Clinton plan would unleash a new race to deploy antimissile defenses, which cash-poor Russia is doomed to lose. "The American plans of a national missile defense is not perceived in Russia as something that is justified by the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs," said Sergei Rogov, the director of the United States and Canada Institute.
The Clinton administration's plan is an even greater worry for the Chinese, who have only about a dozen land-based missiles that are capable of striking the United States. Beijing has already vowed that it will respond to the plan by expanding its nuclear arsenal.
Clinton administration officials have been telling Moscow that they should cut a deal now and agree to amend the ABM treaty because the terms they would be offered by a future Republican president -- if George W. Bush is elected -- would be far less favorable.
The most logical trade-off, specialists say -- and one that American officials hint Mr. Clinton may in fact propose -- would grant the United States the right to build a limited missile defense to counter possible missile threats from third world nations.
In return, Washington would agree to the Russian demand that both sides make especially deep cuts in long-range nuclear arms as part of a Start III nuclear accord.
The Russians have urged that both sides slash their nuclear arsenals to 1,500 warheads. The Pentagon has previously argued that the United States needs about 2,500 warheads to meet its military requirements, but Washington could try to mollify the Russians by agreeing to a limit below 2,000 warheads.
A small but influential group of specialists in Russia argues that the trade-off could be in Russia's interest. Mr. Rogov, for example, argued that a small-scale American defense would not dramatically alter the strategic balance if the limitations were carefully defined.
Officially, however, the Kremlin insists that it is not interested. It has warned that it will not agree to revise the treaty and that an American decision to withdraw from the accord would unravel the entire framework of arms agreements.
Russia would not only stop reducing its arsenal of strategic arms, Mr. Putin has warned, but it might also deploy new multiwarhead missiles, abandon the agreement banning medium-range missiles and even withdraw from the accord limiting conventional arms in Europe.
Instead, the Russians have offered only to cooperate on anti-defense systems that protect against shorter-range missiles.
Having staked out such a tough opening position, Mr. Putin may find it difficult to reach a compromise with Mr. Clinton. Nor does it help that Mr. Clinton is nearing the end of his term and has not always been able to prevail in the arms control debate at home.
Some Russian specialists fear that if a deal were stuck at the June summit meeting, Mr. Clinton would find it difficult to persuade the Republican-dominated Senate to support it. They note that the Clinton administration suffered a stinging setback last year when the Senate rejected the treaty banning nuclear tests. If a deal is to be made, they say, it should be cut with a leader who can make it stick.
In fact, after an antimissile failed a crucial test in January, supporters and opponents of the defense system asked the administration to postpone a decision on whether to go ahead with such a system until after the November elections.
"Even if Russia reached an agreement with Clinton, there would be no guarantee that the next American administration would not come to Russia 18 months after that for another round of talks on modifying the ABM treaty and perhaps yet again," said Aleksandr Pikayev, an arms control specialist at the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"If you want to cut off the tail of a cat you should do it once and not three times," he said.
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