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.
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.
While not capable of a full-scale arms race, both nations are capable of reacting to a US abrogation of the 1972 ABM treaty, experts say. They could have substantially more nuclear warheads at the end of this decade than they're now planning, should they choose. Such steps, however, "would definitely cause economic dislocation" to both, says Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russia has enough long-range missiles - and China would be able to develop enough - to overwhelm the limited missile-defense system now on the drawing boards. A more extensive US system could come later.
Meanwhile, Russia or China could substantially increase the spread of nuclear weapons around the world by ending their current limited cooperation in preventing proliferation, actions that would complicate America's task of defending itself.
For now, neither nation is thought to be moving aggressively now to increase warhead totals or spread nuclear technologies. But both nations are highly secretive about their military activities, so it is impossible to say for sure.
Both nations, for one thing, have other priorities for their scarce funds. "The Russian economy now is down at the level of the Netherlands,' " says Duke University Prof. Jerry Hough, author of a new book on Russia's economy. "It's about to drop some more" if the price of oil - a major Russian export - skids further, as expected.
Many of Russia's current 6,000 long-range warheads sit on old missiles, which are soon due for expensive upgrading. That's because, over time, they deteriorate and become unreliable. Corrosive fuel eats into fuel tanks, for example, and guidance devices require replacement. Not only does Russia lack money to repair its missiles, but most missile-production factories have long since shut down.
Thus, regardless of whether the US violates terms of the 1972 pact, Russia is going to reduce its warhead numbers dramatically.
With Russia itself aiming for a total of about 1,000, Putin would like to leverage the US into agreeing to a like number, in return for which he'll approve scrapping the 1972 treaty.
But that wouldn't be an easy sell in America, since it would cut in half the total of 2,000 that many US experts want.
In its current financial straits, Russia may even press for the US to hire Russian firms to do some segments of the missile-defense system.
"Russia's got the capability," Mr. Hough says, "and their high-tech industry is really hurting."
As one measure of the difficulty Russia would have revving up missile production, it is now making only one new missile, the Topol M, and at the rate of just 10 a year. Putin has threatened to respond to abrogation of the '72 treaty by putting three warheads on each Topol M, and by not taking multiple warheads off some older missiles. Both actions would violate existing START nuclear weapons-control treaties.
China's strategic nuclear forces are getting stronger, while Russia's are getting weaker. But China is starting from a very small base - it is believed to have only about 20 long-range nuclear warheads.
In recent years, China has been trying to update this small fleet as fast as it can, by adding more modern and mobile missiles, but that isn't very fast. In the next five to 10 years, no matter what the US does about the 1972 treaty, China is expected to continue strategic nuclear modernization, replacing old missiles with newer ones.
But China has two limitations: the economy and its manufacturing capabilities, both of which are weak. China lacks the funds to make large numbers of strategic nuclear arms purchases abroad, experts say, or to pump sizeable funds into its nuclear program at home.
Domestically, it has the scientists, but not the manufacturing capabilities.
Fred Weir in Moscow contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor