Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal to build a joint antimissile defense system with NATO and Europe has some intriguing aspects - but it's likely more opening move than final geopolitical gambit, say US arms-control experts.
If nothing else, the recent summit between Russia and the US showed that Russia's new leader is in no hurry to engage the Clinton administration in missile defense talks. Mr. Putin may want to wait and see what the next US president has to offer.
And while Putin agreed that nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea and other rogue states could be a danger to the world in the future, there was no meeting of the minds in Moscow on when that future might arrive.
"That is certainly part of what we've been hearing from them - they feel that the threat is exaggerated," said a senior administration official at a briefing for reporters after the summit's conclusion.
Putin is already taking his defense plan and promoting it on the road. He pressed the issue during a visit to Italy earlier this week, claiming that his alternate system would guard against a rogue state nuclear attack while staying within the current bounds of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM).
Not that he provided details of exactly what that alternate system might be. So far, the Russian leader has only discussed a general approach.
A lid over rogue nations
The idea - first floated by Putin in a broadcast interview prior to the summit - would be for Russia, Europe, and the US to jointly develop interceptor rockets that would be based near potentially dangerous countries such as North Korea or Iraq. These defenses would then shoot down attacking nuclear missiles in the boost phase, shortly after launch.
The system's limited ability wouldn't break the ABM pact, according to Putin.
The US, by contrast, wants to renegotiate the ABM Treaty to allow construction of a national missile defense on US soil. Interceptor rockets would shoot down nuclear warheads as they coasted through space, or descended through the atmosphere.
The Russian system would be analogous to placing a lid over rogue nations. The US approach would be to build an umbrella over itself.
US officials were careful not to reject Russia's ideas out of hand.
There have been military-to-military talks about the possibility of cooperating on various kinds of missile defense, they noted. Some of the technology involved might be relevant to future systems.
This stuff takes time
But none of it could be ready in the next five years - after which time the US believes North Korea will be able to field a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.
"We don't have any reason for confidence that we could develop a system of ... boost-phase intercept in anything like the time frame in which this threat is maturing," said a senior administration official.
Furthermore, the harder you look at the Russian proposal, the more practical problems become apparent, say private arms-control experts.
If it is a jointly run system, who gets to push the button to shoot something down? Would the safety of the US depend on Russia agreeing that a particular blip on a radar screen was an attack that merited a response?
How would costs be shared? Where would the system be deployed? Perhaps most importantly, would Russia's "lid" approach provide more robust protection against theater missiles than longer-range, faster ballistic weapons?
If so, it would protect Russia, US allies, and US forces abroad, while leaving the US mainland less-protected. Such a situation would likely be unacceptable to US political leaders.
"At first blush it's an interesting proposal, but the deeper you go, the more uninspired it is," says Michael Krepon, president of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based security think tank.
If Russia really wanted to be helpful in defending against rogue-nation nuclear capabilities, they could immediately tighten up export controls to Iran and be more helpful in the attempt to get UN weapons inspectors back inside Iraq, notes Mr. Krepon.
"Effective missile defenses are layered defenses," he says. "One needs multiple solutions, including solutions that don't involve missile interceptors, such as tightening nonproliferation treaties."
Russian leaders must be aware that a proposal to work on defenses that would not protect the US mainland would be unacceptable to the United States, says Baker Spring, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Looking beyond Clinton
Their proposal, he says, appears to reflect a belief that President Clinton is already irrelevant to the future of missiles defenses and the ABM pact.
"I believe the Russians believe Clinton can't do this deal," says Mr. Spring.
That's only partly because of the president's lame-duck status. The GOP-led Senate would never approve the Russian proposal, says Spring, himself a former Republican congressional staff member. The political future of missile defense, in the US, won't be clear until after the November elections, if then.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society