- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Senior European officials are telling their American counterparts they are taking "very seriously" Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to widen the missile defense concept to include Europe and Russia.

The trans-Atlantic rift over future security arrangements became glaringly obvious this week when a high-ranking European minister, speaking not for attribution, said, "We should elevate our sights beyond the enlargement of NATO." Within 10 years, he said, "North America, Europe and Russia will be part of the same mutual security pact to face the threats from the south."

In his talks with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson of Britain two weeks ago, Mr. Putin echoed U.S. geopolitical jargon when he referred to "the missile threat from rogue states." Mr. Putin's list of "rogues" included three states that buy Russian weapon systems Iran, Libya and North Korea. Mr. Putin's rationale is that the Russian defense industry needs the cash

The "south" in Russia's view, is anything beyond its southern border, from the Caucasus and Transcaucasus to the Balkans. Mr. Putin is convinced that Osama bin Laden's Muslim extremist followers are stirring things up in Russia's "stans" Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They border on Iran and Afghanistan, two of the "rogues" in the U.S .lexicon.

Mr. Putin and his intelligence and security services have long been convinced that bin Laden's agents are also at work on the side of anti-Russian rebels in Chechnya.

Mr. Putin now concedes that Russia and Europe face a more imminent short-range missile threat from some of the rogues than does the U.S.

America, Mr. Putin told Lord Robertson, has to worry about an intercontinental ballistic missile threat from bad actors, which he said is still some years down the road.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell now recognize that the word "national" or "theater" missile defense sent the wrong signal to friends and allies as well as Russia and China. The new official nomenclature is now plain "missile defense."

Mr. Putin handed a nine-page proposal to Lord Robertson in Moscow which the vice-chairman of the Duma's Defense Committee, Andrei Arbatov, quickly extrapolated to mean Russia has opted for an alliance with the West "and not with China."

Mr. Arbatov, a key player in Moscow that Western policy-planners listen to carefully, described Mr. Putin's gesture as a "tremendous" breakthrough. For Russia and NATO to build a joint defense system, as Mr. Putin's proposal suggested, with shared radar, missile sites and command and control centers, is tantamount to a joint air defense system.

"What is implied within such a system is Russia's accession to NATO, nothing more, nothing less," concluded Mr. Arbatov.

Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism, and the end of the Cold War, Moscow looked askance at Washington for a role in former President Bush's "New World Order." Dr. Fred C. Ikle, the architect of the Reagan defense buildup in the early 1980s, was one of several prominent voices calling for an invitation to Russia to join the NATO alliance.

Instead, the U.S. decided that Russia should first go cold turkey into democratic politics and market economics. The policy was a disaster. The Russian body politic's antibodies rejected the experiment and Russia became a criminally focused state from top to bottom. Russia's new oligarchs and their allies in organized crime syndicates plundered the country to the tune of some $200 billion, invested in real estate and businesses abroad or parked in offshore tax shelters.

When Mr. Putin came to power last year, he decided to give priority to law and order at home before turning to international security problems.

The general staff remained convinced that the principal threat to Russia still came from NATO and its plans for enlargement. The intelligence and security services that constitute Mr. Putin's power base did not agree. They saw the threat from Muslim extremists fomenting trouble in Russia's soft underbelly. Generals and admirals told Mr. Putin that Washington's "National Missile Defense" scheme was a mortal threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent. Moscow pulled out all the propaganda stops accordingly.

Mr. Putin, according to a senior European defense minister whose colleagues confer frequently with their Russian counterparts, has now reassessed the situation. He now firmly believes Russia's security lies with the West, not the East. "This is a very important moment in the history of the NATO alliance. If Washington turns its back on Putin's latest security overtures, we will be missing a unique opportunity."

As Lord Robertson put it in Washington this week, "Putin is moving along precisely the same tracks that we are."

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times and for United Press International.

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