Until Sunday, the administration said there was no need to negotiate reductions with Moscow, which was cutting its forces anyway, and administration officials had called into question the need for a binding agreement to overhaul or replace the 1972 ABM Treaty.
Officially, U.S. officials are still clinging to that position. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said, "What we are not interested in doing is replicating the old arms control process where it takes 15 years to come to an agreement," and Ms. Rice was also careful to describe the bargaining as "consultations" instead of negotiations.
But whatever word is used to describe the talks, it is clear that the administration is now involved in an intensive exchange with Moscow in which mutually agreed nuclear cuts would be the payoff for Russian agreement to permit the administration to move ahead on missile defense either by replacing or overhauling the ABM Treaty.
Mr. Putin can claim this as a significant victory. Russia has sought to link offense and defense discussions since 1998, when the Clinton administration sought Russian agreement to more limited changes to the ABM Treaty. The Clinton administration would not make that link until Moscow showed flexibility on the ABM issue. The Bush team is betting that handing Putin this tactical victory will make it easier for him to cut a missile defense deal down the road.
But like the Clinton administration before it, the Bush team will increasingly find that this will be a difficult process which will require both sides to engage in substantive consultation to have a real chance of success.
Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin had reached basic agreement to reduce their nuclear forces to 2,500 long-range weapons each, but Moscow later said it wanted cutbacks to 1,500 before it would consider much more limited changes to the ABM Treaty than President Bush is now seeking. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and many members of Congress balked at cutting U.S. nuclear forces more deeply. President Bush has called for deep nuclear reductions without assigning any number, and hopefully he will have a better time getting domestic support than his predecessor.
(The United States currently fields 7,200 strategic warheads on missiles and bombers; Russia field 5,800. See Nuclear Numbers for more details.)
On defenses, the Bush administration is still debating the "form" that a new strategic framework with Moscow might take. Mr. Putin is sure to insist on a binding arrangement, if not a full-blown treaty. But many administration officials want to avoid enforceable limits on the U.S. ability to test and deploy a missile system.
The Bush administration is hoping that Mr. Putin will accept an offense-defense
tradeoff, perhaps sweetened by the promise of trade, investment, and other economic
incentives that would be the fruit of the resulting good relations with Washington.
But the Bush administration's fixation on missile defense gives Mr. Putin tremendous
leverage. Because if Russia isn't dealing, then the administration will be forced
either to scale back its missile defense ambitions, or face the international
music and go it alone.
Lee Feinstein is a visiting scholar at Carnegie. He was principal deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff at the US State Department during the Clinton administration, where he was a senior advisor on arms control issues to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.