Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 190

With the October 20-21 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum fast approaching, and with it the first scheduled talks between the Russian and U.S. presidents since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, media attention has begun to focus in recent days not only on Russian-U.S. cooperation in the antiterror war, but also on U.S. missile defense plans and the related strategic arms issues that had been so central to relations between the two countries prior to September 11. The arms control issues were likewise highlighted during a White House news conference given by U.S. President George W. Bush on October 11 and in an interview granted to the Russian newspaper Izvestia by U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice published on October 14.

The remarks of both Bush and Rice suggested that the U.S. side intends during the upcoming Bush-Putin summit meeting in Shanghai to renew its push for Russia to accept U.S. missile defense plans, and that the U.S. pitch will be based at least partly on the argument that the September 11 attacks have actually increased the urgency of missile defense development for the United States. Russian officials, who belittled U.S. arguments in favor of missile defense prior to the September 11 events and who have presumably embraced the views of critics who charge that the terrorist attacks actually proved just how misguided U.S. missile defense efforts were, are unlikely therefore to be swayed by any substantive arguments of this sort that Bush administration officials might bring to Shanghai. But there have nevertheless been some hints that Moscow might be willing to discuss a deal based simply on a belief that the Kremlin will not be able to stop U.S. missile defense development and that it should therefore use the current rapprochement in Russian-U.S. relations to get the best terms it can.

The U.S. administration’s current argument for missile defense–and for the parallel need to move beyond the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty–was laid out briefly by Bush on October 11 when he said that the “case is more strong today than it was on September 10 that the ABM is outmoded, outdated [and] reflects a different time. Speaking of his upcoming talks with Putin, and reflecting both the close personal relationship he appears to have developed with the former KGB officer and his intention to seek an agreement on missile defense with him, Bush said that he could not “wait to visit with my friend Vladimir Putin, to reiterate once again that the Cold War is over, and that there are new threats that we [now] face.” Bush intimated, moreover, that his administration is still prepared to withdraw from the ABM accord unilaterally if the United States fails ultimately to reach an agreement with Russia, saying in response to a question on this subject that “I have told Mr. Putin that the ABM Treaty is outdated, antiquated and useless. And I hope that he will join us in a new strategic relationship.”

The Kremlin, meanwhile, appeared to see little point in responding publicly to Bush’s October 11 message. Western reporters noted on October 12 that neither Russia’s Foreign nor its Defense Ministry had offered a comment on the U.S. president’s remarks, while a Kremlin spokesman said only that “Bush’s position remains unchanged and we have nothing new to say on the subject.” However, Alexander Pikayev, a defense analyst at the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow, suggested that a deal on missile defense–if one is in fact forthcoming–is unlikely in any event to be finalized during the course of a summit meeting being held in Shanghai because of Beijing’s own strong objection to U.S. missile defense plans. “China sees the new system as even more of a threat than Russia and would be very unhappy if any agreement was reached in that city between Russia and the United States.” Pikayev also pointed out that the Pentagon is still conducting a review of U.S. strategic policy, another factor that would mitigate against an agreement in Shanghai, but that the review might be finished by the time Putin and Bush meet again–this time for summit talks scheduled in November at Bush’s Texas ranch. Prior to the September 11 attacks Russian news sources had often suggested that the November summit would likely prove to be a key event in Russian-U.S. relations, one in which the U.S. side would expect an answer to its missile defense proposals and future ties would be shaped in large part by Putin’s response (Reuters, October 11; RFE/RL, October 15; AFP, Reuters, October 12; Izvestia, October 13-14).

Whether that sort of timetable remains relevant in the wake of the September 11 events is unclear, however, Bush’s recent comments notwithstanding. Indeed, earlier this month the Pentagon’s chief financial officer, Undersecretary Dov Zakheim, suggested that missile defense was not the Bush administration’s chief priority at the moment, largely because of its focus on leading the war against terrorism. Concurrently, the Pentagon announced that it was delaying the next scheduled flight test of a ground-based missile interceptor–though it also claimed that the delay had nothing to do with efforts by the Bush administration to construct an antiterror coalition. Some analysts have speculated that among the payoffs that Moscow is demanding for its cooperation in the coalition is an agreement by the United States to slow or abandon its missile defense program. But Zakheim, in remarks made at a defense writers’ breakfast, claimed just the opposite. He said that the Bush administration was more confident now than ever that it could avoid a fall-out with Moscow over the treaty (Reuters, October 5).