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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
No Bush-Putin Agreement on ABM Fate and Missile Defenses
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Wade Boese

During three days of mid-November talks held in Washington and Crawford, Texas, President George W. Bush failed to secure an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that would let the United States move forward with its missile defense plans without potentially violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Despite what seems to be a growing rapport between Bush and Putin and separate pledges by both presidents to cut their deployed offensive strategic nuclear forces by roughly two-thirds, the two did not appear to narrow their differences over how to reconcile U.S. pursuit of nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses with the 1972 ABM Treaty, which prohibits such defenses. The Bush administration has made clear that it prefers unilateral or joint withdrawal from the treaty in order to pursue missile defenses unfettered, whereas the Kremlin wants to preserve the accord or at least keep in place some limits on future strategic missile defenses.

Speaking on November 13, the first day of Putin's visit, Bush acknowledged, "We have different points of view about the ABM Treaty."

Two days later, little had changed. When asked by Bush to respond to a student's question about missile defense, Putin told a school audience, "We differ in the ways and means" of addressing future threats.
Yet, the U.S. side downplayed the differences, contending that the U.S.-Russian relationship cannot be undermined by a dispute over a single issue. Bush said, "Our disagreements will not divide us." Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told reporters November 15 that the missile defense issue "is a smaller element of the U.S.-Russia relationship than it was several months ago" and that "it's not going to have an effect on the relationship as a whole."

Although speculation existed before the summit that Russia might agree to a deal to modify or suspend the ABM Treaty's prohibitions on testing sea- and air-based components of strategic defenses to forestall a possible U.S. withdrawal from the accord, no such agreement was concluded. The presidents, however, pledged to continue their discussions, and Putin sounded confident about the possibility of reaching an agreement, saying, "One can rest assured that whatever final solution is found, it will not threaten…the interests of both our countries and of the world."

Before traveling to the United States, Putin told U.S. journalists at a November 10 press conference that Moscow is ready to compromise and that a deal can be struck, but he said Russia needs specific U.S. proposals first. For example, with regard to the ABM Treaty, Putin asked, "What exactly [does the United States] want changed? What exactly hinders the implementation of the [missile defense] project devised by the U.S. administration?" Putin explained that Russia needs this type of information "in the practical proposals of our American partners."

While commenting that he "partially" agreed with U.S. officials that the ABM Treaty is a Cold War relic, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said November 3 that "before scrapping one agreement or another…we believe that this should be better done only after something has been created in the ways of replacement."

Ivanov's comment underscored a key hurdle impeding the two countries from finding common ground on missile defense. Russia wants to fashion the new U.S.-Russian relationship through treaties in which obligations and responsibilities are clearly spelled out and legally binding, whereas the Bush administration asserts that such treaties are unnecessary between countries that are no longer enemies.

No Change in U.S. Missile Defense Plans

U.S. officials indicated that, despite the lack of a summit agreement, the administration plans to push ahead with its missile defense testing program.

While reiterating in her November 15 post-summit briefing that the United States would not violate the treaty, Rice stated, "The testing program is going to eventually have to commence in a way that we believe is inconsistent with the treaty."

Last July, the administration outlined potential plans, which could violate the treaty, to employ ABM and air-defense radars concurrently in a February 2002 missile defense test and to start construction next spring on a new missile defense "test bed" at Fort Greely, Alaska. When The New York Times questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on November 14 on whether the Pentagon was still preparing for these activities, he said, "You bet."

Unless the ABM Treaty's constraints on missile defense testing are relaxed or eliminated before these events take place, it is likely they will have to be postponed because there is not enough time for the Bush administration to free itself from the treaty by unilaterally withdrawing, which requires six-month notice. The Bush administration has repeatedly said it will not violate the treaty.

Bush has warned that the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the treaty if an agreement with Russia to "move beyond" the accord could not be reached, but it is unclear if and when that might happen. Bush gave Putin no deadline for when an agreement would have to be concluded, although Rice said the Russians "understand that we're soon going to run up against certain constraints of the treaty."

Days before Putin's visit, nine Republican senators-including minority leader Trent Lott (R-MS), Jesse Helms (R-NC), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ)-wrote a letter to Bush encouraging him to withdraw from the treaty. The senators argued that it is not "plausible" to reach an agreement with Russia to permit "full" U.S. missile defense testing while keeping the treaty intact. Trying to give the treaty "flexibility" to allow U.S. testing would "only give continued life to an obsolete agreement which has become the most significant obstacle to improved relations between the United States and Russia," the senators wrote. They concluded by telling Bush that he had their "full support" to withdraw from the treaty.

Top Democrats have offered alternative counsel to Bush. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-DE) warned in a November 15 speech that a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would be a "tragic mistake." Biden described himself as "very happy" that Bush appears "not to be intent at this moment on withdrawing from the ABM Treaty."

Earlier, in a November 5 speech, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said that working with Russia to modify the ABM Treaty to permit missile defense testing would be "far better for [U.S.] security than acting in a unilateral manner that could be perceived by Russia as undermining its security." Levin warned that a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the treaty could lead Russia to stop dismantling its nuclear forces, compel China to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal, and strain relations with U.S. allies in Europe and Asia.