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From: "Stanislav Menshikov" <menschivok@globalxs.nl>
Subject: UNANSWERED DOUBTS ABOUT NMD Will the Putin-Bush Love Affair Last?
Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2001

"MOSCOW TRIBUNE", 21 December 2001
Will the Putin-Bush Love Affair Last?
By Stanislav Menshikov

The mild reaction by Vladimir Putin to George W. Bush's decision to scrap the ABM Treaty came as a bit of surprise. The initial comments by Russian parliament figures and experts were more critical. Some saw it as a slap in the face despite all the good things that Russia did for America after September 11. Others called on the government to respond in kind by abrogating SALT-1 and SALT-2 and re-installing MIRVs on heavy rockets. Then came the official presidential statement, and practically all experts and commentators hastily followed line. One could even hear something like a general sigh of relief as if forsaking former policies was the natural thing to do once the president said so. Putin called the Bush decision a mistake but it was not exactly clear what, if anything, the US was losing as a result of this error.

Of course, refusing to retaliate and thus help spoil the new atmosphere in US-Russia relations is a welcome gesture on the eve of Christmas and New Year. However, many questions and doubts remain unanswered. For instance, why was Bush in such a hurry to make his move now and therefore risk what some critics considered an inevitable resumption of the armaments race? And why did Putin move so easily away from his earlier harsh stance in Ljubljana when he threatened to scrap the SALTs and MIRV his missiles?

After carefully reading US congressional testimony on the subject one gets the clear impression that there was not a single item on the NMD programme in the coming year that would come into conflict with the ABM Treaty. When Russian military experts asked their US counterparts point blank which particular restrictions they had in mind so that these could perhaps be amended there was no conclusive response. The impression was that the US side was not willing to discuss its plans lest some secret details emerge. By scrapping the Treaty it could avoid disclosing the true intent.

So is there a hidden part to the NMD iceberg? One possibility is that if current tests fail for technical reasons nuclear warheads would be installed on the interceptors to guarantee their effectiveness. In 1972 only nuclear equipped killer missiles were available. The US scrapped their own system permitted under the Treaty because destroying incoming warheads in their last phase meant setting off nuclear explosions over American territory. The USSR kept a similar system to protect Moscow. But technical progress in the last three decades has permitted interceptors to reach incoming enemy warheads in the midcourse phase of their trajectory, i.e. away from US territory proper. So far the existing killer systems are not too effective because they use traditional warheads that need to hit the target head on. To make them effective nuclear warheads could be used that need only to explode somewhere near the incoming weapons.

Developing such a system is certainly in conflict with the ABM Treaty. And, unlike the present systems undergoing tests, they are not toys, as sarcastically described by Putin, but a serious potential threat to the Russian deterrence capacity. Apparently, Kremlin believes no such danger exists. But so far it has no guarantees that American nuclear NMD systems will not be deployed. Starting June 13, 2002 no restrictions will apply. The US will be free to do as they wish.

Mr. Putin's change of heart since Ljubljana is indeed remarkable. Not only is he willing to proceed with drastic reductions in offensive weapons with no detailed arrangements for control but he now also doubts the need to deploy MIRVs on the new Topol-M missiles. A new group has emerged in Moscow who are fans of the new "freedom" to re-fashion Russia's own armed forces without being restricted by international treaties. They are happy at the prospect of saving on costs of maintaining an excessive nuclear arsenal in the belief that this will somehow help provide money to modernise the armed forces.

Actually, despite ambitious long-term plans to re-equip the army with new weapons very little is done to allocate necessary resources for this purpose. The share of defence expenditure in GDP is still a miserly 2.6 percent, exactly were it was at the end of the Yeltsin era. Only 22 percent of funds needed to develop the new third-generation fighter aircraft are provided from the federal budget. The remainder is to be earned by exporting old military hardware. Other defence projects are in a similar beggarly condition.

Mr. Putin is apparently counting on his love affair with Bush to last despite America's resolve to ignore Russia's strategic interests. This is a dangerous game because in the real world, unlike the virtual world of idealistic expectations, conflicts between nations are inevitable. Compassion and altruism are the last things that can help resolve them. When George Bush scrapped the ABM Treaty he acted only in his own interests, as he saw them. When Vladimir Putin readily concurred, one wonders if his hope for a lasting alliance was well founded. Perhaps the mistake was his, not Bush's.

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