US grand plan proves hard sell

Yesterday, Russia rebuffed a Bush proposal that would lift barrier against US national missile shield.

The Bush administration is promising a brave new world of relations with Russia: In the boldest attempt at redefining relations in nearly a decade, Washington is seeking a "new strategic framework" meant to leave cold-war thinking behind.

But as US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met yesterday in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin to sell Washington's concept and lay the foundation for a broader relationship, it became clear that the Kremlin is far from signing on.

A chummy second meeting between Mr. Putin and President George Bush in Genoa, Italy, last month led to a surprise agreement to link talks on America's missile defense plans - which Moscow vehemently opposes - to Russia's wish to deeply cut nuclear warheads.

A key sticking point is the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which Russia wants to preserve. Washington says the treaty is a "relic" it wants to scrap, before it is violated by robust US missile-shield testing.

Putin rejected administration hopes of a joint withdrawal, however, even before he met Rumsfeld: "You know our attitude toward the ABM treaty," Putin said. "For us, it's unconditionally linked with both the Start II and Start I [nuclear reduction] treaties."

"I am afraid I am not [convinced]," said Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, reaffirming the tough Russian view. Russia fears a US shield could undermine its own nuclear deterrence. "The existing, multilayered system of strategic security which exists in the world today fully meets Russian needs," Ivanov said. "We still think the ABM treaty is one of the major important elements of the complex of international treaties."

But Rumsfeld told Russian journalists earlier in the day that the ABM treaty, which bans national missile defenses, has "outlived its usefulness." "I am a simple soul," he said. "I think life is a lot simpler if we pick up and go on."

Despite the flurry of US-Russian diplomatic activity in the warm afterglow of the Genoa meeting - and the setting aside of hostile Bush administration rhetoric that strained ties with Russia earlier this year - the United States is facing a tough sell.

"There has to be a collision at some time," says Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian Studies. "It is hard to see how they can look at each other's eyes, and pat each other's souls, and say 'OK, we can each go our different directions.' "

Both sides want to reduce warheads, Mr. Goldman says, "but I don't see [the Russians] letting missile testing go on in Alaska without making some noises.... I don't think they can be bought."

The carrots Washington is offering include plans to boost American investment in Russia, high-tech sales, and even a sharing of some missile-defense technology, officials say - if Moscow moves to stop its weapons proliferation to North Korea and Iran. One aim is to bring Russia closer to the Western democracies.

"It takes some time," Rumsfeld said, downplaying expectations shortly before his arrival in Moscow. "It is not something that just happens, that two countries spend 50 years-plus hostile and then just suddenly accommodate to a new set of relationships."

Details of the US package remain unclear, however. Russian analysts say the leadership is not ready to make permanent compromises to accommodate a complex defense shield that may never - if it proves technically unfeasible or too expensive - be deployed.

Bush's new strategic framework "doesn't hold any water at all" because "no one knows exactly what it means," says Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian arms-control negotiator and scholar at the Monterey Institute in California. "It's just a way to rationalize missile defense and withdraw from the ABM treaty," he says.

Breaking from deterrence strategies of the past doesn't make sense, either, Mr. Sokov argues, because "deterrence is a property of nuclear weapons, cold war or no cold war. As long as you have nuclear weapons, you have deterrence in some form."

Both sides plan to reduce nuclear warheads. The Start II treaty requires cuts from more than 6,000 to less than 3,500. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to 2,500 each. Russia can't afford to maintain its arsenal - much less pay with its own cash to destroy warheads - so Putin has spoken of reducing to just 1,500 warheads.

Rumsfeld did not have a precise counteroffer for Putin, but says he will advise Bush in a month or two on the lowest US numbers possible to maintain US security.

Despite Kremlin opposition, not all Russians are wedded to the 1972 treaty. "Why should we keep a negotiated settlement reached decades ago?" asks Igor Kravchenko, the head of American and European Studies at the foreign ministry's Diplomatic Academy. "That was a different ideology, with different intentions, where the preoccupation was only with survival," Mr. Kravchenko says. "We should think of the needs of our time."

Those needs for the Americans mean a new concept of broad ties with Russia and no formal treaties. US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice traveled to Moscow just days after the Genoa summit to begin efforts to win Moscow's acceptance for deploying defenses against long-range missiles. One of Washington's top military priorities is to create a defense shield that will aim missiles at enemy long-range missiles, which they say could come from North Korea or Iran.

As the US-Russia dialogue continues, with three high-level meetings set over the next three months, some are warning of the pitfalls of offering Russia economic sweeteners. Already some in Moscow are calculating the scale of the US payoff if Russia were to leave the ABM treaty.

"The complete mismatch of Russian expectations and what the White House can deliver in real life is potentially very dangerous," says the Monterey Institute's Sokov. "My advice to Washington is: 'Don't promise too much.'"

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