President George W. Bush's decision to withdraw from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty, announced yesterday, will deal a severe blow to his new friend Vladimir Putin, Russian experts say.
Russia has long opposed any modification of the treaty, which bans testing and deployment of antimissile weapons. But Mr. Bush has called the treaty a cold war relic and has said that terror threats underscore the need for missile defense.
Though Russia acknowledges that it is no longer a superpower on par with the US, many in the country's establishment still view the arms control framework as a guarantee that it enjoys a special relationship with the US and commensurate influence in world affairs.
Initial Russian reaction to Bush's decision sounded ominous. "The US utilized our help in the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, then announced this stance on the ABM treaty," says Vladimir Lukin, a leader of the liberal Yabloko party and former Russian ambassador to the United States. "We counted on closer cooperation with the US, but now we will have to struggle to see this decision as a unique event, rather than the general trend." The chief of Russia's General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, warned that the pullout "could lead to a new spiral in the arms race."
Since September President Putin has defied his conservative military brass by backing the US-led anti-terrorist coalition and making a far-reaching reevaluation of relations with the West. Ties have warmed dramatically. But the Kremlin's most ambitious hopes, for a whole new strategic deal with the West, appear to have suffered two setbacks in barely a week. Russian expectations of a full voice in NATO went unrealized at last week's "NATO at 20" summit. US withdrawal from the ABM treaty undermines much of Putin's recent talk about building a new, collective system of global security.
"The US clearly does not understand how radically Putin broke with his own elite when he joined Russia with the American coalition against terrorism," says Sergei Kolmakov, an analyst with the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism, which is linked to the State Duma. "Support for Putin's pro-West policy is far from unanimous in key sections of the Russian elite, and it is going to be much harder for him to defend it now."
Notice of withdrawal from the ABM treaty allows the two sides six months in which to negotiate new terms. Optimists say American moves toward missile defense entail no immediate impact on Russian national security - the Kremlin still controls an overwhelming nuclear deterrent - and create the opportunity for Moscow and Washington to explore new ideas for coexistence.
"US leaders have made clear that Russia is no longer seen as a strategic rival," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, a specialist with the official Russian Diplomatic Academy. "We should have some faith in new approaches. After Sept. 11, the US knows that it cannot solve global problems unilaterally, but must seek cooperation from Russia and the global community. This will reshape our relations in the long run, but we must be persistent."
Pessimists warn that Putin could face intense political pressure to take military counter-measures, which at best might bring on a chill in relations or, at worst, reignite the arms race. In this scenario, the Kremlin may declare all US-Russian arms control agreements null and void, then proceed to redeploy the big, multiple-warhead ICBMs that were banned under START-2 (which is still unratified by the US Congress). "If the ABM treaty ceases to exist, it follows that Russia should have a free hand in nuclear planning," says Dmitri Rogozin, chairman of the Duma's international affairs committee. "Logic dictates that we should move to offset the damage done to our security."