A Delicate Nuclear Balance
The New York Times, June 21, 2001

COPENHAGEN -- At his press conference in Moscow after he met with President Bush in Slovenia, President Vladimir Putin of Russia indicated his interest in a compromise on amending the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow an American missile defense. But he also indicated, forcefully, that this must be a genuine compromise, taking Russian concerns into account, or Russia would retaliate with a major expansion of its nuclear arsenal. This tough stance was inevitable. From the Russian point of view, it is an effort at balance.

The American plans carry an obvious long-term threat to Russia's own nuclear deterrent; from the viewpoint of Russian security, adding warheads to counter an American missile shield would be a logical course. More immediately, the plans put Russia in a complex situation — especially, as President Putin hinted, with regard to China.

Russian and other opponents of antimissile programs have good reason to hope that defense systems will go on failing in tests, eventually burying the whole plan in domestic opposition and ridicule. The Democratic ascendancy in the Senate has increased Russian hopes in this regard. This is one good reason for Russia not to rush into an agreement.

Another reason is that Russia has no interest in getting ahead of Europe on this issue. As President Bush's talks with European leaders indicated, the latter remain profoundly skeptical of missile defense.

Russia has no interest in encouraging European leaders to abandon their skepticism. Russian hard-liners believe Russia passed up a golden opportunity to split the North Atlantic Treaty Organization over how to conduct the Kosovo war. Hostility to the United States in the Russian establishment remains strong and is fueled by the imminent prospect of NATO's expanding to include the Baltic states. Under such pressure at home, the Russian government is certainly not going to give free help to Mr. Bush in bridging a gap between America and Europe that American policies created.

If Russia is to cooperate with the United States on missile defense, it will only do so at a price. The first part of the Russian price relates to money and technology. The Russian security establishment was appalled at the shattering of Russia's high technology sector by Western-backed economic reforms in the 1990's, and by the supplanting of Russia on international markets. In return for agreeing to amend the ABM treaty, Moscow is likely to want both access to American technology and major American purchases of its own products.

Even more important, however, is the question of how, and to what extent, the ABM treaty is amended. Moscow wants a very tightly defined amendment that would allow limited protection against a few missiles from "rogue states" but would explicitly exclude future development toward a fuller shield.

This stance is dictated not only by Russia's interests, but also, as Mr. Putin stated, by those of China. Even a full-scale development of national missile defense would take decades to threaten Russia's massive deterrent — leaving aside whether Russia, as Mr. Putin indicated, would begin adding warheads in response to unilateral American action. However, the effectiveness of China's small arsenal could be compromised very much sooner. And Russia cannot afford to make a deal with the United States at Beijing's expense.

In part, this is because Moscow needs China to counter American global influence. But even if that were not so, Russia could still not risk angering China on a vital matter, not with a long common border and a huge and growing disproportion in population and non-nuclear military might. So American negotiators must recognize that their Russian opposite numbers will, to some extent, represent Chinese interests.

Should the United States be prepared to negotiate with Russia on these terms? A public debate on this question is necessary; and for that to occur the Bush administration must decide what it really wants from missile defense and tell the public of its decision. Whether because of coyness, uncertainty, caution or some other factor, the administration's intentions on this major policy issue remain rather mysterious. If the aim is a limited shield against rogue states, then a compromise with Russia (and perhaps even China) should be possible. If the hope is to create an expandable system leading to the militarization of space, then neither Russian, nor indeed European, acceptance is likely to be forthcoming.