Bush Plans How To Exit ABM Treaty: Mulls Steeper Cuts to Assuage Russia

By Carla Anne Robbins and Andrew Higgins
Reprinted with permission Wall Street Journal , October 19, 2001

In a test of their warming relationship, President Bush is expected to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. plans deep, unilateral cuts in offensive nuclear weapons, but will give notice by year end that it will withdraw from the ABM treaty banning missile defenses.

The president's top aides were debating last night how many nuclear weapons the U.S. will retain, though officials say they expect Mr. Bush to present a firm number to the Russian leader at their Sunday meeting in Shanghai.

Mr. Putin, whose own arsenal is decaying, has called for both countries to cut back to 1,500 long-range weapons, while U.S. nuclear planners had been resisting cuts much below 2,500.

The U.S. has 7,000 long-range weapons deployed, while Russia has 6,000.

Mr. Bush's expected move would be an important step toward his goal of building an ambitious, and costly, national missile defense system. While considerably sweetened by a pledge of steep reductions of weapons, Mr. Bush's proposal still is high-risk, especially as he tries to keep together an international coalition for military action in Afghanistan and a broader war on terrorism.

Both Russia and China, the host for this weekend's Asian economic summit, have fiercely opposed Mr. Bush's plans to jettison the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which bars construction of national missile defense systems.

The Russians, who have neither the technological nor economic might to match the U.S. in missile defenses, fear that abandoning the treaty will undermine what is left of Moscow's strategic parity with the U.S.

The relationship between the two countries has warmed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Mr. Putin has aligned his country firmly with the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, sharing intelligence, offering flyover rights and accepting the basing of U.S. troops and planes in two former Soviet republics in Central Asia. In a further sign of Mr. Putin's new thinking, Russia announced this week that it would close a listening post in Lourdes, Cuba, built during the Cold War.

U.S. officials say they expect Mr. Putin eventually to go along with Mr. Bush's missile defense plans almost certainly not this weekend, but perhaps by mid-November, when the two men are expected to meet again at Mr. Bush's ranch in Texas.

"The Russians get that this is a new relationship, and it's a lot broader than strategic arms," a senior U.S. official said.

Mr. Bush also is expected to sweeten the pot with pledges of new cooperation on economic and trade issues, as well as in the military sphere. Mr. Putin is eager to have the U.S. endorse his efforts to join the World Trade Organization Commerce Secretary Don Evans, in Moscow last week, pointedly encouraged those efforts.

It still may be politically difficult for the Russian leader to accept the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty without serious protest. "They may be reading Putin right, but they're misreading the domestic politics there," says Michael McFaul, a Russia specialist at Stanford University in California.

Russia clearly is eager to have the U.S. reduce its stockpile of offensive weapons, at a time when its own arsenal is slipping into disrepair. At the same time, negotiated arms control treaties are one of the last vestiges of Russia's superpower status, and many members of Russia's defense establishment fear that without a formal treaty, the U.S. could decide to build up its weapons at some point.

Another U.S. official said that, depending on the strength of Mr. Putin's opposition, the White House may have to reconsider its aversion to formal treaties and agree to codify "parallel" nuclear cuts in some written format.

Many analysts both in Moscow and Washington predicted that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would cool Mr. Bush's enthusiasm for missile defenses and focus U.S. attention on other threats. It hasn't.

In a news conference last week, the president said the terrorist attacks were an example of "the new threat" the U.S. faces. He said he planned in Shanghai to "ask my friend" Mr. Putin "to envision a world in which a terrorist thug, and/or a host nation, might have the ability ... to deliver a weapon of mass destruction via a rocket."