Sweet-talking the Russians

Before the National Defense University on May 1, President Bush proposed replacing an obsolete Antiballistic Missile Treaty with a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses. On television, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the president believes the ABM Treaty "cannot stand in the way of what we need to do." On background a few weeks ago, Pentagon officials were saying the Bush administration was prepared to abrogate the treaty unilaterally on six months' notice if Russia refused to amend it.

Now, President Bush is reportedly planning to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin, when they meet in Slovenia on June 16, a rich package of inducements to agree to modifying the treaty - including the purchase of Russian surface-to-air missiles as a part of a European shield, help in completing a giant Russian radar station, and joint antimissile exercises.

The administration has apparently had some second thoughts about unilaterally scrapping the treaty. It must be aware that such a step would face the vehement opposition of just about every important country in the world, except possibly for India, which supports missile defense. The New York Times quotes a senior White House official as saying, "If we are going to make this work, the Russians have to agree to the plan."

But there is no reason to expect that Russia will agree to a plan that would drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, which have been working to develop a common front. Especially now, when the administration is likely to face some hurdles with new Democratic chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees.

The idea of cooperating with Russia on missile defense is not new. President Reagan offered publicly to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to share future antimissile technology. At the time, Pentagon officials smiled at the notion of giving the Soviets access to advanced American technology.

This administration has accused Russia of being an "active proliferator" of weapons to Iran and other unfriendly countries. That would suggest putting strict limits on sharing technological secrets with the Russians.

The reported new offer must strike the Kremlin as a sign that the Bush administration is not as sure of itself about scrapping the ABM Treaty as it has represented.

The first Russian reaction from Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was that he had not seen the American proposal, but he is sure it will not solve the ABM issue. The treaty, he said, remains the essential cornerstone of arms control.

If President Bush will be able to sweet-talk President Putin into accepting changes in the treaty that would permit America to develop an antimissile defense, there is no sign of it yet.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), has just been published.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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