Why Bush, Putin struck a deal
By linking missile defense to cutting offensive warheads, each side gains.
Both the United States and Russia can claim diplomatic success from their surprise agreement yesterday to hold talks linking two key strategic issues: a missile-defense shield and a reduction in strategic nuclear weapons.Skip to next paragraph
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Washington can point to Russian President Vladimir Putin's new willingness to consider the possibility of a missile-defense shield, after weeks in which he had threatened to restart the arms race if the US annulled a 1972 treaty by developing such a system.
Moscow can point to America's willingness to talk about further reducing the number of offensive nuclear warheads. The US now has about 6,000 nuclear warheads, and its military leaders are believed to want at least 2,000. Russia would like to reduce its stockpile, now about 6,000 also, to about 1,000. Achieving such a reduction, some US analysts say, is the principal reason for Mr. Putin's recent threats.
Announcing discussions, of course, is a lot easier than holding them and reaching agreement on such thorny issues on which the two nations already have taken strong stands.
But if agreement were to be reached, the result would be an economic boost for both nations - especially Russia.
"Putin is being very pragmatic," says Alexander Zhilin, a retired Army colonel and military analyst at the independent Institute of Applied Sciences in Moscow. "Putin has to bring something home to soothe the generals, placate public opinion, and ease the crisis of Russian security. Sharp reductions in the US strategic arsenal would be undeniably good for Russian security and would be seen as a political victory for Putin."
President Bush, meanwhile, can hope the agreement will reduce skepticism among Western allies, who worry that the push for missile defense is antagonizing old rivals such as Russia and China. Speaking with Mr. Putin in Genoa, Mr. Bush said that talks on both offensive and defensive weapons "go hand in hand in order to set up a strategic framework for peace."
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's top foreign affairs adviser, will go to Moscow soon to work out what Bush called "a specific timetable" for discussions between top officials of the two nations.
For the United States, the discussions also ease concerns that Russia and China might turn their newly signed friendship pact into a firm military alliance.
If the US and Russia fail to reach agreement, presumably the Bush administration would then go ahead with its plans to build a defense against a long-range attack by nuclear missiles.
The Bush administration hopes to have a system in place by late in this decade. But for years, experts say, the missile shield would be effective only against rogue nations that have just a handful of missiles, and possibly against China, with dozens of missiles.
Still, if Russia decided to live up to the Putin threats, it could attempt to reescalate the strategic arms race. But its capacity to do so, experts say, is severely limited by two factors: shortage of funds, and the physical deterioration of its many older missiles.
Even if Russia developed new warheads at top speed, "by 2008... [it] will have fewer than 1,500 deliverable warheads in its strategic arsenal," says independent Russian expert Alexander Goltz.
But by extending the life of old missiles it would rather scrap, and by taking more funds from a starving civilian economy, Russia might be able to get its nuclear arsenal up to 2,500 or 3,000 warheads, some experts say.
Still, there's no way, they agree, that Russia could rev up its long-distance nuclear forces back to their peak strength of 1989, when the Soviet Union had 11,000 operational nuclear warheads able to be used against the US. "The threat to resume the arms race is largely a hollow warning," says American University professor William Kincade, a specialist in US-Russia relations. "They're far from being in a position to carry out the kind of threats" Putin has made.
China also has objected to the US missile-defense plan. But it probably isn't able to greatly increase its long-range nuclear strike force either, even with help from Russia, most experts say.