Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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New York Times
November 16, 2001
Barbecues and Missile Shields

Three days of meetings between President Bush and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, concluded yesterday with evident good will but no agreement on reconciling American missile defense plans with the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The remarkably relaxed and friendly atmosphere developing between the two leaders serves both countries and may eventually help resolve the ABM impasse. Meanwhile Washington should continue to defer any missile tests that would violate the treaty in its current form.

Yesterday's informal appearance by the presidents at Crawford High School, near Mr. Bush's Texas ranch, showed how far the two countries have moved beyond the stiff and strained relations of the cold-war era. Even when ties warmed under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the atmospherics of presidential meetings thawed only partly. Yesterday nothing seemed forced or scripted in the easy bantering between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin or their sometimes like-minded replies to the thoughtful questions posed by the Crawford students. Yet for all the upbeat language, and the barbecue Mr. Bush served up on Wednesday night, there was no agreement on the divisive issue of missile defense.

Washington remains years away from perfecting a defensive system that can reliably shoot down intercontinental missiles. Years of testing are required before such a system can be built, and most of the needed land-based tests are permitted under the current terms of the ABM treaty. The Bush administration wants to expand America's testing program to include now-prohibited tests of sea-, air- and space-based systems and build a new ground installation in Alaska not permitted under treaty language. The Pentagon is moving to plan such tests. It should give diplomacy more time.

Mr. Putin has repeatedly signaled his willingness to consider modifying or reinterpreting the treaty in ways that would allow more ambitious testing, provided some formal agreement between the two countries continues to govern the future development of missile defenses. As Moscow sees it, such an agreement would ensure that only limited defenses against pariah nations or terrorists will be developed, not the kinds of more extensive defensive systems that might one day neutralize Russia's own missile force. Mr. Bush dislikes the ABM treaty and would prefer to be free of its restrictions.

The quality of relations between the United States and Russia is as strong a guarantee of peace as any treaty. That quality is now much improved, and is likely to be further enhanced by the sharp cuts in nuclear warheads announced earlier this week. Yet treaties also play an important role, especially when they have worked well for decades. Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin must continue their efforts to resolve the missile defense impasse.

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