- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2000

As varied as U.S.-Russian relations have been in recent years, what clearly emerged from last week's meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation of North America in Boston is that National Missile Defense remains an area of huge and hurtful difference. It is not the only one. Be the topic peacekeeping, NATO expansion, or missile defense, Russians tend to find an American plot aimed specifically at them and this though the participants at the meeting from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to historians, politicians and academics, are among those who wish to see Russian relations with the United States improve.

Nothing rankles like missile defense, though, a topic to which the conversation constantly reverts, like the head of Charles II in "David Copperfield." As one American participant put it, "It's nine years after the Cold War ended, and I can't believe we are discussing MIRVed missiles again." That would be Multiple Independently targetable Re-entry Vehicles. A Canadian volunteers that "this could set us back into the Cold War era."

The depth of Russian emotions, rising undoubtedly out of a sense of Russian national humiliation, comes as somewhat of an eye-opener when one is used to discussing missile defense as a rational reaction to a changing world in which nuclear proliferation is moving apace, and in which the threat of terrorism counts as one of the most serious for American national security. If one nation ought to feel singled out for special consideration in this context, it is probably the Chinese, whose missiles threaten Taiwan, an old friend of the United States. It may even be that the prevailing lack of concern for Russian reactions helps fuel the Russian sense of frustration and neglect. "During the Cold War everybody had their assigned role," says a former Soviet foreign minister. "Today, we don't know what our role is."

Precipitating a feeling of crisis is the fact that President Clinton is to set a date for decisions on NMD for sometime this summer or fall. It is a moment many Russians as well as Democrats and moderate Republicans dearly wish to avoid, at least for the time being. There is currently a movement in Congress, led by Sens. Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith and Joseph Biden to urge Mr. Clinton to postpone the decision till after the election.

You can count Mikhail Gorbachev among those who articulates the wait-and-see approach. "Let's not rush to a decision here. Let's give time to the Russian government to consider it," he says. Technology is pushing the issue he says, interestingly comparing NMD to the installation of the SS-20s in the Urals in the late late 1970s, a decision made by befuddled Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who almost inadvertently (in this version of history) gave approval to a major upgrade of old rusty missiles already there. "It started an incredible chain of events," Mr. Gorbachev says, which is true because a new Reagan administration decided to counter this new threat to the capitals of Europe with Pershing II and Cruise missiles.

It appears that the new Russian government has already done some thinking on the subject, which may be a sign of superior coolheadedness on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There is reason to believe that within the next 6-10 weeks, a deal will be announced between the Russian and the American administrations on revisions to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to allow a very limited American NMD deployment, in return for a better deal for Russia in the upcoming START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) III negotiations. Mr. Putin has already promised to push the Russian Duma for ratification of START II, much to the delight of the U.S. president who spies an opportunity for an arms-control presidential legacy heaving into view. If the Russian president thinks this is an acceptable idea, in order to prevent the United States from scrapping the treaty altogether, the U.S. Senate will have to read those revisions with a very fine magnifying glass.

The fact is that Russians simply do not believe that Americans are serious when they talk about protecting the continental United States from nuclear terrorism or rogue state attack. In their view, the missile programs of North Korea, Iran and Iraq are no more than a pretext for U.S. nuclear domination. Right now, Russia at least has the distinction of being the only country that can threaten the national existence of the United States. However, an American NMD and a deteriorating Russian nuclear arsenal may soon put an end to that. Rather than a Third World nation with nuclear weapons, Russia will then just be a Third World nation.

And at the bottom of it all there is that ever-nagging fear of the world's "sole super power" rising roughshod over the rest. "For a while it looked to us like no one could stop the United States," says a Russian participant. "Russia, China, India meant nothing. Europe and Asia were told to stay on the sidelines."

All of which seems almost unrecognizably distorted when compared to the policy debate here in Washington, where lurking American isolationism rather than rampant global ambitions are what many worry about. Meanwhile, though, we need to get on with the business of protecting Americans against missile attack even if Russian feelings get hurt.

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