Summit talks between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in Genoa on July 16 and a high-profile visit to Moscow last week by a trio of top Bush administration officials have highlighted the fact that a new period of diplomatic engagement between the two Cold War-era enemies is now underway. But the talks have done little to clarify whether the two countries have made any real progress in narrowing their differences on the one complex of issues that is currently most crucial to their relationship: Russia’s defense of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in the face of U.S. plans to develop and deploy a national ballistic missile defense system. Indeed, this past week’s talks in Moscow have produced a reaction not entirely dissimilar from that which followed the Putin-Bush talks in Genoa. In both instances Washington has hailed the progress made on the missile defense and related strategic issues, and has suggested that the two countries are closing in on a deal of some sort. Those suggestions have been linked to Russia’s alleged new willingness to amend the ABM accord. Moscow, however, has in each of these cases played down the significance of the Russian-U.S. consultations, and has gone out its way to deny either that the talks have helped to narrow in any fundamental way Russian and U.S. differences on the missile defense issue, or that the meetings with their U.S. counterparts have weakened the Russians’ resolve to stand by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The sharply contrasting public assessments of these recent Russian-U.S. meetings clearly represent in one sense a jockeying for advantage at the outset of what is likely to be an intense new round of strategic consultations. They would seem at the same time to reflect the role that international opinion, and most particularly that of the European Union, is playing in the current Russian-U.S. talks. The Bush administration appears to have abandoned its earlier, highly confrontational posture toward Russia, in large part to satisfy the demands of its Western allies that it negotiate in good faith with Moscow over the ABM treaty and U.S. missile defense plans. The Russian government, in turn, has moderated an earlier policy of its own–one bluntly aimed at rallying international (and European) opinion against U.S. missile defense plans–for a more nuanced policy that emphasizes its willingness to negotiate with Washington. Indeed, the conduct of regular arms control negotiations with the United States is itself one of Russia’s key foreign policy goals, because the talks are seen in Moscow as a confirmation and symbol of its ongoing global role. Moscow will therefore be happy to see the talks extend indefinitely into the future. Against this background, the Bush administration faces the danger that its increasingly obvious push to force the pace of talks might be seen by Europe as an effort to browbeat a weakened Russia into an agreement. That perception could provoke a backlash against Washington in some European capitals.
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