Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 119

That the road ahead remains pitted with potholes for Russian-American relations, despite this past weekend’s cheery summit, was proven a day after the June 16 meeting, when Russian President Vladimir Putin used a visit to Yugoslavia to harshly criticize NATO’s Kosovo peacekeeping mission. The potential for continued discord was likewise evident in a lengthy interview Putin granted to U.S. journalists on June 18. While the Russian president had many positive things to say about his weekend meeting with President George W. Bush, and was upbeat about Russian-U.S. relations in general, he also made some sharp comments about likely Russian responses to any unilateral deployment by Washington of a national ballistic missile defense system. Those comments–which were offered as a response to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s assertion on June 17 that the United States would proceed with missile defense with or without Russia–included a blunt reaffirmation of Moscow’s readiness to reinforce its nuclear capabilities via the “mounting of multiple warheads on our missiles.” Putin also warned that Moscow would repudiate the START I and START II treaties under these circumstances, and issued perhaps his clearest statement to date about Russian concerns regarding one possible consequence of a U.S. decision to proceed with missile defense deployment: the triggering of what Putin called a “hectic, uncontrolled arms race on the borders of our country and neighboring countries.” Putin was presumably referring especially to the possibility of an escalating nuclear arms race between China, India and Pakistan.

Putin admitted that Russia could not stop the United States from moving forward with missile defense. But he also said: “We offer our cooperation. We offer to work jointly. If there is no need that such joint work is needed, well, suit yourself.” Those comments were probably directed at least in part at European governments, whose insistence that Washington and Moscow negotiate directly over missile defense was probably one motivating factor in the Bush administration’s decision to reverse course on Russia and schedule the June 16 summit. Since the beginning of the year Moscow has labored assiduously to cultivate the perception in Europe that it is a responsible partner and a willing negotiator on these issues. That strategy has been aimed in part at contrasting its position with the Bush administration’s alleged unilateralism, and in part–and with an eye on the future–on ensuring that Washington is blamed should arms control negotiations fail to achieve a breakthrough. Putin’s comments about possible Russian responses to a U.S. missile defense deployment broke no new ground–all the threats have been voiced before, mostly by Russian military officials–but their blunt restatement so soon after the summit underscores the hard bargaining that Moscow appears prepared undertake.

In other comments to U.S. reporters, meanwhile, Putin also said that arms control talks with the United States require, first, that the two sides discuss whether serious threats actually exist (a reference, presumably, to ballistic missile threats); second, that the two sides must then determine what missile defense technologies might be used to counter these threats; and, third, that only subsequent to this discussion could they move on to determine what provisions of the ABM treaty might need to be addressed. This approach, which was apparently what Putin outlined to Bush during their June 16 meeting, closely mirrors the approach the Russians have laid out before NATO and European governments with respect to the possible deployment of a theater missile defense system in Europe. That is, Moscow claims not to have bought the notion that ballistic missile threats from “rogue nations” are currently a threat to Europe, and has urged a period of consultation and assessment before any moves aimed at creating a missile defense system for Europe (a theater defense system in this case) are undertaken. Washington has had little positive to say about Russia’s missile defense proposals for Europe, and will likely be even less enthusiastic about applying its principles to broader U.S. strategic missile defense plans (New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, AP, June 19).

Putin, finally, told the American reporters that Moscow wanted to ensure that China’s strategic concerns are addressed in any debate with the United States about missile defense and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The comment echoed earlier indications from Moscow that it may in fact be seeking both to internationalize any Russian-U.S. talks on these issues to the greatest extent possible, and to carve out a possible mediating role for itself (see the Monitor, June 6). Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made this goal clear on May 31 when he called for a Russian dialogue with the United States, China and India in order to “neutralize” the threat of missile attacks by so-called “rogue states,” and on June 5 when he said missile defense consultations “will continue not only between Russia and the United States, but also between Russia and NATO, and between Russia and China” (AFP, May 31, June 5). Despite recent pledges to consult with allies on the question of missile defense, the Bush administration is likely to resist the sort of broad deliberations that Moscow seems to have in mind, both because they could delay deployment and because they could subject U.S. planning more directly to pressures from abroad. Washington is likely to prove particularly resistant to any Russian effort to bring China directly into negotiations on missile defense and the ABM Treaty.