Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Washington Post
October 24, 2001
Toward a Strategic Framework

PRESIDENT BUSH appears to have made progress in persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to accept a "new strategic framework" that would allow the United States to move forward with the development of missile defenses. At their meeting in Shanghai last weekend, officials said, Mr. Putin hinted that he might be willing to set the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty aside in exchange for deep cuts in offensive nuclear arsenals and a new set of understandings about defenses. The United States and Russia would also agree to cooperate in countering the spread of nuclear weapons, an accord that U.S. officials say would specifically cover Iran. Though there is still much to negotiate, both sides are sounding cautiously optimistic; "we do have understanding that we can reach agreement," is the way Mr. Putin put it.

Such a strategic agreement would be a major achievement, especially if it were expressed in a written accord that could transcend the personal relationship between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin. It could result in a major reduction in the number of nuclear weapons -- from 13,000 warheads now deployed by the two countries to fewer than 5,000. It could allow the United States to proceed with testing of a range of missile defenses -- including tests of sea systems and other technologies now banned by the ABM treaty -- without a serious rupture in international relations. It would also give a major boost to Mr. Putin's incipient effort to lead Russia into a partnership with the United States and NATO, an initiative that has the potential to greatly increase global stability and U.S. security. Though Russian-American cooperation on terrorism since Sept. 11 has offered a way into that partnership, real change will not come without a firm strategic accord between Moscow and Washington that addresses each side's needs -- Moscow must reduce its offensive arsenal, while the United States needs to keep working on missile defenses.

Officials now say they doubt a final agreement could be completed by the time of the next Bush-Putin summit in three weeks. The United States has yet to spell out how deeply it is willing to cut its offensive arsenal, and the agreement on defenses that would replace the ABM treaty has yet to be formulated, much less worked out in specifics. For that reason, perhaps the most serious threat to the talks may be impatience on the American side. Missile defense hawks in the Bush administration were pressing hard before Sept. 11 for a unilateral withdrawal by the United States from the ABM treaty sometime this fall; last week they tried to have Mr. Bush give Mr. Putin a deadline of January for U.S. action, with or without a new agreement. Mr. Bush didn't set the deadline, but it's clear that some senior officials, who long have been on record opposing arms control agreements, continue to prefer unilateral U.S. action on missile defense to any new accord with Russia.

Such action would have been a mistake before Sept. 11, when it would have risked a development of missile defenses that would make the global strategic situation less rather than more stable. It would be an even greater mistake now, when what is at stake is not just the testing of missile defenses -- defenses that have yet to be proven technologically -- but preservation of U.S.-Russian cooperation in a military campaign in Central Asia, and encouragement of a fragile and uncertain but potentially historic move by Russia toward partnership with the West. The Bush administration has done well to travel so far with Mr. Putin toward the formulation of a new strategic framework. Now it must show the patience and flexibility that could allow a meaningful and durable agreement to be realized.

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