While Western press accounts offered a split verdict, Russian news accounts showed little hesitation in declaring President Bush the clear victor in the arms-cuts-for-missile-defense deal announced with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Genoa, Italy, over the weekend.
“Russia gave up,” read the headline in the respected business daily Kommersant.
“The Americans got what they wanted,” analyst Vadim Solovyov concluded in the Russian defense newspaper Independent Military Viewpoint. “Putin is altering his strategy and agreeing with the tactics of the United States.”
The accord, under which Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin agreed to link substantive talks on the U.S. missile defense plan to deep cuts in their offensive nuclear arsenals, showed once again Mr. Bush’s ability to finesse an issue that many critics predicted at the start of his term would prove a diplomatic disaster for U.S. relations with Russia and its leading European allies.
Mr. Putin, who many thought would provide skeptical Europeans with the cover they needed to oppose Mr. Bush’s missile defense plan, has over the past two months done an about-face, now providing the new American president with the cover he has sought to revamp or even scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to allow his defense program to succeed.
The new U.S.-Russian understanding comes just days after Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, warned that Mr. Bush’s policies were “isolating” and “minimizing” the United States in global affairs.
Before the Genoa meeting, Samuel R. Berger, President Clinton’s national security adviser, predicted that the United States was on a “collision course” with Russia and its NATO allies because of Mr. Bush’s insistence on his missile defense plan.
Mr. Putin, on his return to Moscow yesterday, attempted to play down the significance of the understandings reached in Genoa, saying there was “no major breakthrough” in the talks and that Russia had reaffirmed its support of the ABM Treaty.
Russian government officials also stressed that Mr. Putin had agreed only to “consultations” on the U.S. missile defense plan, not to negotiations.
But, as a number of Russian analysts noted yesterday, having dropped his categorical rejection of any missile defense system in his recent talks with Mr. Bush, Mr. Putin has reduced his bargaining position to simply haggling over the details.
In the face of widespread early skepticism, Mr. Bush and his leading foreign policy advisers made clear they were determined both to go ahead with the missile defense plan and to consult early and often with allies and with Russia even as field testing proceeded.
A senior defense analyst in the Bush campaign organization, now in a top Pentagon policy post, even outlined for reporters the very trade-off involving missile defense and arms cuts that Mr. Putin this weekend unexpectedly embraced.
Lee Feinstein, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on the arms-control issue in the Clinton administration, said the Bush team “was to be congratulated for moving cooperatively with the Russians, something a lot of people didn’t think was going to be the case coming into this debate.”
Mr. Feinstein said yesterday he still worried that the Bush administration placed too high a priority on its missile defense plan, giving Mr. Putin “tremendous leverage” to extract concessions in other fields in exchange for his acquiescence on the issue.
Baker Spring, a defense analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the three-sentence statement released by the two leaders in Genoa did not provide enough detail to determine whether U.S. missile defense plans had received new momentum.
But Mr. Spring also noted that Russia’s flat rejection of the defense idea, predicted by many U.S. skeptics, clearly had not come to pass.
“I think that would have hurt Russia’s image in the world and would have hurt it substantively as well,” Mr. Spring said.
“I think the president has had a clear strategy from the beginning and taken consistent stands in support of that strategy,” Mr. Spring said. “That kind of consistency will pay dividends.”
In light of the Bush administration’s previous willingness to consider unilateral arms cuts, agreeing to consultations with Moscow on the issue hardly rates as a major concession.
The linkage also serves the useful diplomatic function of giving Mr. Putin something to show his domestic critics, particularly in the military, who are openly hostile to junking the ABM Treaty.
“Putin has to bring something home to soothe the generals, placate public opinion and ease the crisis of Russian security,” Alexander Zhilin, a military analyst at Moscow’s Institute of Applied Sciences, told the Christian Science Monitor yesterday.
As if to counter any notion that the Putin accord would slow U.S. missile defense ambitions, Mr. Bush dispatched National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to Moscow today to work out an “aggressive schedule” of consultations on the missile defense and missile reduction issues.
Mr. Bush, at a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday, said he planned to press forward quickly.
“I can understand why wants time and I’m going to give him some time, but I also want to emphasize to you that time is of the essence,” Mr. Bush said.
This article was based in part on wire service reports.