- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Within days of last month's Russian-American summit in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin held an extraordinary, nearly three-hour news conference in Moscow with American correspondents. Reminiscent of the inevitable conclusions that his two predecessors had eventually adopted, Mr. Putin made a rather startling statement. Referring to an interview the previous day in which U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice made it explicitly clear that the Bush administration would pursue national missile defense (NMD) with or without Russia's cooperation or approval, Mr. Putin reacted thusly: "When we hear that the programs would go with us or without us, well, we cannot force anyone to do the things we would like them to," the former Soviet KGB colonel acknowledged, adding, "We offer our cooperation. We offer to work jointly. If there is no need that such joint work is needed, well, suit yourself."
Suit yourself? In effect, Mr. Putin has finally publicly acknowledged his predicament. Facing an American president determined to test the limits of missile defense, Mr. Putin has admitted — no doubt, ever so reluctantly and bitterly — that Russia lacks any veto power whatsoever. Notwithstanding the horrible social conditions he confronts, Mr. Putin desperately seeks to cling to the one thing — intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying multiple, independently targetable warheads — that he mistakenly believes will confer superpower status upon his otherwise decrepit nation. Unable to veto America's pursuit of national missile defense, Mr. Putin is now attempting to bluff the United States into abandoning the promising future of NMD. At his news conference, he threatened to abandon the START II treaty, which would eventually ban intercontinental missiles with multiple warheads.
If Mr. Putin is half as bright as American press reports suggest he is, he surely must know that he is holding a losing hand. These missiles were an instrument of the Cold War. The Soviet Union's ballistic missiles carrying multiple warheads gained great currency because of their potential use as first-strike weapons designed to destroy their American counterparts in their silos. As a matter of fact, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called Mr. Putin's bluff when he sent Congress the revised blueprint for defense spending in fiscal 2002. Mr. Rumsfeld has proposed eliminating all 50 of America's Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles, which carry 10 first-strike warheads each, long before START II would require their destruction.
If Mr. Putin wants to spend his very scarce rubles expanding a missile force America's limited NMD would not threaten for at least 25 years, by his own estimate, and, indeed, would not even be designed to deter, well, let him. In the meantime, let us not hear anything about writing off Soviet-era debt or more loans from the U.S.-financed International Monetary Fund, even if the prices of natural gas and oil, which are the only commodities keeping the Russian economy afloat today, collapse, as they inevitably will one day. It is simply shocking, to say nothing of being utterly self-defeating, that the Putin regime would desperately cling to such an outdated notion of superpower status while every other institution and trend in Russia is in a state of accelerated destruction. Clearly, Mr. Putin's press notices are way off the mark. He can't be anywhere near half as bright as he is said to be.

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