What President Bush calls his most "urgent" military objective is to build a national missile defense system that would shield Americans from any ballistic missiles fired by "rogue" nations - like North Korea or Iran.
But Russians say the future missile threat is overblown, and believe NMD is less about US protection and more about the way it sees itself in a new global view.
"NMD is about American strategic hegemony in the world," says Alexei Pushkov of the Presidential Foreign Policy Council in Moscow. "Even if I am wrong, this is how it is perceived all over the world, and perceptions here are much more important than reality."
In fact, most of Europe and Asia opposes the plan. But perhaps most important, Russia - for decades the counterpoint in an arms race with the US - views NMD as a threat to its dwindling superpower status and is working to undermine it. Moscow this week is ramping up its courtship of Iran. And rhetoric is heavy against any changes - or scrapping by the US altogether - of the landmark 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, which would be required to deploy NMD.
Long considered a cornerstone of European security, the ABM treaty limits missile arsenals and prohibits missile defenses. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has dismissed the accord as a "straightjacket," and says Russia is "part of the problem" of proliferation, by selling missile and nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. North Korea, in turn, has been a chief source of missile technology to the Middle East.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that an American pullout would "create legal consequences over which Russia has no control."
The result from all this political posturing, threats, and counterthreats, Russia says, could be new arms races. While cash-strapped Moscow is ill-equipped to take on such a task - and still maintains a large arsenal - China, especially, could feel obligated to fortify its 20-strong long-range missile force that would be neutralized by NMD. That, in turn, could touch off arms buildups in India and Pakistan.
"America is changing the rules, which could lead to a very serious crisis," says Mr. Pushkov. "There has been one strategic balance, but now it will be a new strategic imbalance. The US is a bit carried away by [its] unilateralism ... because nobody takes the threat seriously."
On Monday, Iran's President Mohammad Khatami arrived in Russia for four days of talks with Mr. Putin. Countering the $60 billion US missile plan is said to be high on their agenda.
Mr. Khatami - in the first visit to Russia by an Iranian leader in decades - was met by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who is responsible for Russia's military-industrial complex and overseas arms contracts. At the Kremlin, Khatami told Putin that Iran wants to "begin a new spring in our relations."
After their meeting, Putin announced Russia formally agreed to resume sales of arms to Iran, which it had not done for five years. Moreover, Putin restated Russia's aim to help Iran with its nuclear power plant, which the US believes could be used to advance Iran's nuclear weapons program.
This is not likely to please the US, which has already slapped sanctions on several companies in Russia for selling nuclear and missile expertise to Iran.
That, Russia contends, is hypocritical. "The Americans are present in the [Iranian] market. US-made aircraft are in the air, supplies are available through third parties and third countries, while Russian planes stand idle," Gen Leonid Ivashov, who works at the Defense Ministry, told state television on Sunday.
And Iran even wonders why it is on the US "rogue" nation list. "It's almost meaningless to say that somehow Iran, or North Korea, or Libya can threaten American national security," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, an American-educated political scientist at the University of Tehran. "That's an excuse for missile defense, and is due to domestic pressure," he says. "The Defense Department does not want its budget cut, so it needs a viable, imminent threat."
Meanwhile, Putin is signaling Russia's willingness to play hardball. First came a tough military message: Russia defiantly launched an array of long-range missile tests from air, sea, and land last month, amid a bluster from top generals that NMD was "pure fantasy." Second, Putin sent a shot across the diplomatic bow by offering his own counterproposal last month for a mobile defense for Europe, to be created hand-in-hand with NATO.
While many in Washington, and at NATO, took this as a sign Moscow had at least recognized a missile threat, analysts here say it is a tactic to delay NMD, while the Russian offer is examined, and a bid to insert Russia into the missile-defense debate.
"Of course it is a tactic.... There is no military threat, so Russian generals are suspicious," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow. "They are asking: 'Why is the US spending so much money on this? They must be up to some kind of mischief - like a decision to undermine Russia's nuclear deterrence.' "
The limited system currently on the table was put forward by former President Clinton. It envisions an interceptor base for 250 "hit-to-kill" rockets in Alaska, designed to knock out "tens" of missiles arcing over from North Korea. Some 20 interceptors could be in position by 2006.
But questions remain about NMD, as well as the threat it is meant to offset. "Hitting a bullet with another bullet" remains a technical challenge despite Pentagon efforts since the 1950s. A 1998 Defense Department report warned that NMD programs were in a "rush to failure" and "highly unlikely" to succeed. In the wake of a second test failure, Mr. Clinton decided six months ago to delay deployment.
Precision about any missile danger has become "more a matter of faith and ideology ... than intelligence and threat analysis," says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
A system won't be deployable "in any significant strength" for nearly a decade, Mr. Cordesman notes, after Bush leaves office even if he is elected to a second term, and "threats can mature in three to eight years - or never."
Last year, the CIA told Congress that US territory is anyway "more likely" to be attacked by "non-missile delivery means." And 50 American Nobel laureates have warned that NMD will do "grave harm" to core US security interests.
Among their concerns may be the strong reaction from Russia and China - which announced last week it would boost defense spending by 18 percent because of "profound changes" worldwide. These are only the first signs that presage a troubled future if NMD goes ahead, says Joseph Cirincione at the Carnegie Center for International Peace in Washington. "Unlike any other weapons system, the [negative] impact from the deployment of NMD is felt years before any military capability is actually yielded."
"It is very unwise for the US to think that Russia is a weak country today," warns Pushkov, of Russia's Presidential Foreign Policy Council. "Russia can still use the fact that it has a very important nuclear potential as a bargaining factor."
"This approach is really dangerous," adds Pavel Ivanov, at the institute for National Security and Strategic Studies in Moscow. "There are hawks on both sides, and America's decision to bury the ABM Treaty will signal to the Russian military that they must reanimate their claims that 'Our Motherland is in Danger.' The final end could be the Nikita Khruschev approach: 'We'll make missiles like sausages.' "
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor