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The Economist (UK)
November 17-23, 2001
Arms and the men

Despite the lack of agreement between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin in Crawford, Texas, over missile defence, their meeting demonstrated a new warmth, and highlighted the spectacular progress they have already made over the policy issue that used to dominate “super-power” relations: strategic arms control

EARLIER this year the idea of a summit disagreement between the American and Russian presidents about America's missile-defence plans was seen as a looming diplomatic disaster. But given the new warmth between the two countries since the September 11th terrorist attacks, and the almost embarrassingly chummy relationship between President George Bush and President Vladimir Putin on display this week, the disagreement over missile defence hardly seemed to matter.

Mr Bush welcomed Mr Putin to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, like an old friend. In Texas “you only invite a good friend to your home,” he noted. Along with hours of private discussion, there was plenty of public and emphatic informality, and a barbecue dinner with a country-western dance band. The two men visited a local high school, where they gushed over each other. But they did not hide their disagreement over the missile-defence issue. “We have a difference of opinion,” admitted Mr Bush. But he added that “our differences will not divide us.” Mr Putin chimed in that an agreement might eventually be reached that would “not threaten the interests of both our countries and of the world.”

The reason for the optimism, despite the disagreement, is that the two countries do seem to have turned a corner. The pragmatic, modernising Mr Putin has backed Russia away from global competition with America, and seized the opportunity presented by the September 11th attacks to forge an odd new alliance with its former foe. Mr Putin's support for America's campaign in Afghanistan has persuaded Mr Bush that “we're transforming our relationship from one of hostility and suspicion to one based on co-operation and trust.”

In keeping with this new mood, America has given Russia something it badly wanted—an agreement by both sides to slash the size of their strategic arsenals from the current total of about 7,000 warheads to a fraction of that number. Mr Bush has said America will cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next ten years. Mr Putin has similarly said that Russia will reduce the number of its long-range weapons to about one-third of the present level. This agreement will come just in time to relieve Russia of a financial burden which, in its shrunken post-Soviet form, it could not sustain. Russia would ideally like the number of warheads reduced to 1,500 each.

Bye bye to the ABM

And yet Russia, for its part, seems not quite ready yet to give the Americans a long-awaited present: agreement to modify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, under which both sides pledged to remain vulnerable to each other's rockets, and hence eschewed the temptation of a first-strike capability. For the Russians, this treaty has been a guarantee against America’s building a shield that would render worthless its nuclear arsenal—one of the last remaining tokens of its superpower status—by creating the possibility, however hypothetical, of an American first strike.

Nevertheless, Mr Putin seemed to leave open the door to the possibility that Russia may agree to “overlook” American plans for the construction of silos for five interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, in Alaska, to begin next spring. But Russia has still talked only about allowing the testing of anti-missile systems; it has not yet said it would tolerate the deployment of any new interceptors, over and above the very limited defences which are permitted under the ABM treaty.

For American officials, this change of stance by the Kremlin would be a welcome, if long-overdue, re-interpretation by Russia of its own interests. The anti-missile defences which America wants to deploy—on a scale which has yet to be determined—are not directed at Russia's large rocket forces, but at the much smaller arsenals which rogue states such as Iran, Iraq or North Korea may one day direct at the United States. Whatever the scope of the American system, it is unlikely to be extensive enough to stop a full-scale attack by hundreds of Russian rockets. From this point of view, Russia has every interest in giving America the leeway it wants, as long as it can extract a high enough diplomatic price.

For American hawks, it is galling even to be discussing these matters with Russians in terms that seem to imply that the Kremlin has a veto over American defences. They have urged that America unilaterally renounce the ABM treaty—something either side is entitled to do after giving six months' notice—and construct whatever defences it deems appropriate.

The Bush administration has said it is prepared to do exactly that if necessary, and this threat has certainly concentrated Russian minds. But unless it is clear that there is no other choice, such a unilateral move would be seen as highly provocative by Russia—and by some of America's European allies—and would darken the climate of international relations.

Why does all this still matter? To an extent that would surprise most non-specialists, who assumed the cold war ended when communism collapsed a decade ago, America and Russia have kept alive the set-piece, almost ritualised stand-off between their huge nuclear arsenals; each country maintains hundreds of missiles on hair-trigger alert to attack the other. While Mr Bush has acknowledged that this alert status creates a danger of an accidental nuclear exchange, it is still not clear how far either side is prepared to go in “confidence-building measures” to reduce the risk of an apocalyptic accident.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a lobby group that favours arms control, has suggested that warheads due for decommissioning under the deep cuts soon to be announced should be taken off their alert position as quickly as possible; and there should be some reduction in the alert status of those warheads which remain in service.

American officials explain that, although they have no reason to doubt the benign intentions of Russia's current government, they cannot ignore the old “strategic calculus”—which country could wipe the other out first—except by carefully calculated agreement. And until recently the American-Russian climate has been too tetchy to allow for such an agreement.

Like almost everything else in the world, that changed after September 11th. The terrorist onslaught on New York and Washington drove home the point that whatever threatens America in the near future, it is not likely to be a concerted attack by a huge nuclear arsenal. In order to save energy for the real threats—such as that of an attack by terrorists who possessed a tiny quantity of nuclear material, but were desperate enough to use it—American policymakers feel a renewed impetus to tidy up unfinished business from the cold war. And happily enough, Russia seems to feel the same way too.

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