- The Washington Times - Monday, November 26, 2001

It isn't every day that the United States and Russia agree they will reduce their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds. Yet, strangely, the story was greeted with skep-

ticism and subsequently downplayed by the news media.

In another time, and under different circumstances, President Bush's decision just before Vladimir Putin's visit here and the Russian president's pledge to match that reduction would have been the story of the year.

But the nation's fixation on the war in Afghanistan undercut the significance of the president's announcement to reduce nuclear stockpiles over 10 years. The network news shows all led with the war story, and then reported the historic nuclear arms cutback later in their broadcasts.

Contributing to the muted media reaction was the fact there was no formal arms-agreement in writing, no elaborate signing ceremony and no substantial negotiations leading to the decision. Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said the details would be worked out later.

Work is needed on a lot of the details. At one point in their joint news conference before a group of high school students in Crawford, Texas, Mr. Bush committed himself to destroying U.S. warheads as the stockpile was reduced.

But Miss Rice later corrected that assertion, saying that only "a number of them" would be destroyed and others would be stored. "What the president was referring to is, we will not have these warheads near the places at which they could be deployed," she explained.

Mr. Bush's decision to unilaterally reduce the nation's warhead arsenal was not new. In a major national security policy address during the campaign, he unveiled his plan to gradually cut back U.S. warheads as the Pentagon developed and deployed a reliable anti-ballistic missile system.

The proposed policy change was a bold stroke and won rave reviews at the time. Mr. Bush declared that the days of the Cold War were over, that nuclear deterrence in the future would become defensive, not offensive, making the world a safer place.

Mr. Bush and his advisers believe that defensive anti-missile technology will make offensive nuclear missiles obsolete. By announcing his intentions to unilaterally reduce U.S. warheads as such technology is perfected, he signals that we harbor no secret plan to gain a nuclear advantage over any potential adversary.

The only obstacle against developing and deploying an anti-missile system is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Russians have been opposed to scuttling the ABM agreement. But the other big development coming out of the summit which the news media also downplayed were statements by Mr. Putin that seemed to suggest he was becoming much more flexible on this issue.

Insiders say Mr. Putin's new flexibility is the result of the rise of Islamic terrorism and his growing fear that the next big terrorist act will be nuclear. Mr. Bush has made this point repeatedly in his private talks with Mr. Putin. And the Russian president is said to be taking it much more seriously now according to his advisers.

"We share the concerns of the president of the United States. that we must think of future threats," Mr. Putin said at the joint Crawford news conference with Mr. Bush. "We differ in the ways and means we perceive that are suitable for reaching the same objective. And given the nature of the relationship between the United States and Russia, one can rest assured that whatever final solution is found, it will not threaten the interests of both our countries and the world."

Later that day, in a telephone call-in show on National Public Radio, Mr. Putin went even further in his willingness to compromise on cutting the ABM knot.

"We also believe that the 1972 treaty that we have now is flexible enough for us to use it for different kinds of efforts towards a greater level of security, both for the United States and Russia," he said.

Mr. Putin's remarks sounded like the makings of a breakthrough on Mr. Bush's missile defense plan. "What President Putin said here is extremely important," Miss Rice said.

There has been a subtle but important change in the way Mr. Putin now sees the anti-ballistic issue and the entire arms' buildup. He clearly wants to reduce his Soviet-era military apparatus because the weak Russian economy cannot finance it. Moreover, he believes U.S. technology will, over time, build an effective anti-missile system and he wants to share in that technology.

Mr. Bush deserves the credit for moving Mr. Putin to this point. This was their fourth round of one-on-one discussions, but the most personal of all their meetings as they dined on Texas barbecue (which Mr. Putin called "a masterpiece of cooking"), toured the ranch and talked about everything from the war in Afghanistan to Russia's wish to join the World Trade Organization.

When Mr. Putin left Crawford to visit New York and Ground Zero, all the news reports said the talks had ended with "little substance." In fact, Mr. Putin has signaled that the two sides may be close to a major breakthrough on ABM. Much more occurred in Crawford than the news media reported.

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