Tuesday, November 13, 2001

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist massacre of nearly 5,000 civilians in the American homeland, the geopolitical background of the U.S.-Russian summit, which starts today, contrasts sharply with earlier meetings between leaders of these two nuclear powers. Not only did Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly overrule his defense minister in welcoming the deployment of U.S. military forces inside two former Soviet republics, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, he has also ordered Russian intelligence services to provide their U.S. counterparts with reams of information relating to the al Qaeda terrorist network throughout Asia and the Middle East. Either development would have been virtually unthinkable earlier this year.

During the summit, some of which will take place at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush and Mr. Putin will discuss the future of Afghanistan, counterterrorism in general, Russia’s desire to join the World Trade Organization, the relationship between Russia and NATO and nuclear proliferation. The principal issue confronting them, however, is the fate of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and Russia’s obsession with achieving an agreement that would maintain, at a significantly reduced level, rough parity between each nation’s nuclear arsenals.

Regarding the ABM Treaty, it appears unlikely that Mr. Bush will provide the requisite six-months notice of a U.S. intention to withdraw. Instead, Mr. Putin is reportedly prepared to accept unlimited anti-missile testing in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to withdraw from the ABM Treaty until a deployment decision is made.

Of course, de jure abrogation of the treaty is preferable. The immediate concern, however, is that the United States is able to pursue its robust testing schedule. If de facto changes in the ABM Treaty permit the necessary anti-missile tests to be conducted without limiting their scope or the system’s potential, then it will represent a major advance toward the ultimate goal. However, given the nearly pervasive view within the Democratic Party that the ABM Treaty represents the “cornerstone of strategic stability,” a major drawback of such a compromise is the possibility that a Democrat might capture the White House before deployment can be achieved. Therefore, the Bush administration needs to deploy even a rudimentary system by 2004, in effect making national missile defense a fait accompli.

Regarding the reduction in strategic nuclear warheads each arsenal now has between 6,000 and 7,000 warheads and is scheduled to decline to 3,000 to 3,500 Mr. Bush has committed the United States to further, substantial reductions irrespective of Russia’s actions. Mr. Putin wants each nation to reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,500 warheads, which is the most Russia can ultimately afford. The Pentagon, however, begins to get worried when plans call for fewer than 2,000 warheads. If Mr. Bush agrees not to jettison the ABM Treaty, surely Mr. Putin ought to accept relatively minor differences in the two nations’ arsenals. In the meantime, work on national missile defense must proceed as quickly as possible.

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