- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

U.S. officials scrambled yesterday to analyze a shock proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin for a pan-European missile-defense shield to complement the one being discussed for the United States.

Mr. Putin outlined the idea which goes far beyond anything the United States has ever suggested to a startled audience in Italy on Monday, just one day after he stiff-armed President Clinton's missile-defense proposals at a Moscow summit.

Russia, the European Union and NATO should cooperate on a continentwide shield that would protect the great land mass from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Mr. Putin said at the end of a brief visit to Italy.

Russia, China and a number of NATO allies have expressed fears that a U.S. national missile-defense (NMD) system targeting potential threats from "rogue nations" such as North Korea or Iraq could evolve into a shield that would leave America invulnerable to nuclear attack.

That, they say, would undermine the idea of deterrence and "mutual assured destruction" that the U.S.-Soviet 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty was supposed to enshrine.

Mr. Putin's sketchy alternative "would avoid all the problems linked to the balance of force," he said in Rome.

"It would permit in an absolute manner a 100 percent guarantee of the security of every European country, with the obvious involvement of our American partners."

With details of Mr. Putin's idea still unknown, U.S. policy-makers and private analysts were divided over whether it was a genuine change of heart or an attempt by Moscow to fan fears abroad about the U.S. defense idea.

"We are looking to find out more details about whether this represents anything new or is just what he said to [Mr. Clinton] over the weekend," said White House spokesman P.J. Crowley yesterday.

The confusion and Mr. Putin's deliberate vagueness over the future of the ABM treaty may be intentional.

Russia's evolving national strategy "seeks to restrain the United States, to encourage a multipolar world," according to Robert Pfaltzgraff, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and head of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

"Whatever else the ongoing ABM debate does for Russia, it does serve the purpose well in emphasizing the differences between Europe and the United States," Mr. Pfaltzgraff said yesterday.

Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr. Putin "clearly has an interest in seeming to appear more reasonable to the Europeans on this issue than the Americans."

"It seems as if he's taken a page from the Clinton playbook and concluded you can't beat something with nothing," Mr. Cirincione said. "By sounding reasonable, he may calculate he can make it diplomatically impossible for President Clinton or even his successor to go ahead with a U.S. plan without Russian approval or participation."

Mr. Putin may also have been seeking to score diplomatic points by showcasing the multilateral spirit of his missile-defense proposal at a time when many in Europe have criticized what they see as a U.S. propensity to go it alone.

Clinton administration officials had counted it a small victory that Mr. Putin in Moscow had not rejected their argument that the threat of a missile launch by states such as North Korea might require changes to the ABM pact.

"It's certainly a step forward to say there is a missile threat, which the president of Russia now recognizes," said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who will travel to Moscow soon for further talks on security.

In exchange, Mr. Clinton in Moscow explicitly acknowledged that the ABM treaty was a "cornerstone" of the international arms-control regime, a position consistently argued by Moscow and consistently rejected by congressional supporters of the NMD idea in the United States.

Despite private doubts, Western officials were careful yesterday not to reject Mr. Putin's idea out of hand.

"Because the statement was very broad, we cannot make any detailed comment," said deputy NATO spokesman Mark Laity, speaking to reporters in Brussels.

"But we welcome the cooperative spirit that [Mr. Putin] has shown with regard to international arms control and the international threat of weapons of mass destruction."

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