- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Tuesday that Russia will have to go ahead with a new class of advanced offensive nuclear missiles if the United States continues with plans to develop a defensive missile shield.

The powerful ex-president said in Vladivostok that the dispute was the main issue holding up negotiations on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Those tensions could be eased if Washington provides Moscow with full details of the missile shield plan, Mr. Putin added. He said Russia would reciprocate with information about its offensive missiles.

Russia analysts said the remarks appeared to be an effort by Mr. Putin to squeeze as many concessions as possible from the Obama administration before agreeing to a new treaty to replace an arms reduction pact that expired Dec. 5.

“It’s a negotiating ploy,” said Clifford Kupchan, a Russia specialist at the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis and consulting firm. “Both sides want a START treaty, but Putin wants at least informal constraints even around Obama’s missile defense lite.”

Earlier this year, the Obama administration scrapped plans by the George W. Bush administration to base interceptors and radar in the Czech Republic and Poland in favor of a largely sea-based program.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kupchan said, Russia remains “in perpetuity scared of a potential U.S. ability to neutralize their second strike capability.”

A former U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile officer and current Defense Department official told The Washington Times that Mr. Putin is “trying to get us to drop as many missile defense systems as we will drop. He is going to push until he finds that line where we say, ‘No more.’ ”

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Mr. Putin, who is widely considered to be more powerful than Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, appeared to deliberately link U.S. missile defense plans to the treaty aimed at reducing U.S. and Russian stockpiles of offensive nuclear weapons.

“If we want to retain the balance, we have to establish an exchange of information: Let the U.S. partners provide us information on [their] missile defense while we will give them information on [our] offensive weapons,” Mr. Putin said.

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate state of negotiations told The Times, “We are aware of Putin’s comments. The bottom line is that as the president said alongside President Medvedev in Copenhagen, we continue to work on the START treaty.”

Indeed, Mr. Medvedev said in Copenhagen on Dec. 18, “Our positions are very close and almost all the issues that we’ve been discussing for the last month are almost closed. And there are certain technical details which we can encounter, many agreements which require further work. I hope that we will be able to do it in a quite brief period of time.”

The Obama administration — like its predecessor — has insisted that missile defense is aimed not at Russia but at Iran and North Korea. Its decision to scrap the Bush plan, however, was seen by many as a concession to Russia and part of an effort to “reset” relations and improve cooperation on other issues, including Iran.

Toby Gati, who was a special assistant for Russia to President Clinton and is a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, said the Russians “always regard their missile forces as the one element of their national defense which is the absolute equivalent of U.S. systems and gives them the stature of a great power on par with the United States in this area. They jealously guard any action which might undermine it.”

Mrs. Gati said the Putin remarks could reflect Russian concern that the U.S. decision not to base a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland did not eliminate plans for the system altogether.

“The Russians have always been concerned about our defensive systems, and their original satisfaction that we backed away from the plan in Central Europe is now over,” she said. “Now they are facing the realities of what that new system is and the fact that the U.S. continues and will continue to have systems that they regard as a threat, even if these systems are not a threat.”

• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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