Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 111

Speculation continued to build yesterday over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call, made a day earlier during a visit to Rome, for the United States, NATO, Europe and Russia to work together to deploy a missile defense system for Europe. Commentators noted that Putin’s proposal contained an implicit recognition that Western nations do indeed face a potentially serious missile threat from the so-called “rogue nations.” The same point was made in a joint statement released by Putin and U.S. President Bill Clinton following their two-day summit in Moscow this past weekend, and appeared to mark a shift of some sort in Russia’s views toward the missile defense question. Previously Moscow had denied or belittled U.S. assertions that ballistic missiles from such countries as North Korea, Iraq or Iran could emerge over the next decade as a threat to the West. Indeed, the Clinton administration had seemingly made little headway in convincing not only Russia but also its NATO allies of the seriousness of the missile threat and, by extension, of the need for the United States to develop and deploy a limited national missile defense system.

An official NATO statement “welcoming” the Russian leader’s comments demonstrated that Putin’s latest proposals contain at least an element of interest for the West. “They show a spirit of cooperation on arms control issues and concerning the threat of weapons of mass destruction,” the NATO statement said. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen likewise offered a cautious endorsement of Putin’s proposal, describing it as a “step forward” insofar as it appears to recognize that a missile threat from rogue states does exist. He said that he was looking forward to discussing the plan during an upcoming visit to Moscow, during which he is to hold talks with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. NATO sources were also quoted yesterday as saying that the Russian proposal could conceivably lead to progress in unblocking negotiations between Russia and the United States over the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and U.S. plans to develop a missile defense system.

But reaction to the Putin proposal was more generally muted, not only because it was unclear about precisely what it signifies in terms of Russian policy toward missile defense, but also because the proposal has been stated only in the vaguest terms. The Russian plan apparently would involve the development of a collective antimissile system that would use upgraded anti-aircraft missiles to destroy enemy missiles in their initial “boost phase.” The system is different from that being proposed by the United States in that the U.S. system would use more advanced rockets to destroy warheads in space or as they descend. In his remarks in Italy Putin pushed the Russian proposal on the grounds that it would offer equal security to all European countries and would not violate the ABM treaty. U.S. experts have suggested that the Russian plan would use outmoded technology and would not provide an effective defense against potential missile attacks.

Analysts differed yesterday concerning the motivations behind Putin’s missile defense proposal. One major Italian newspaper reportedly portrayed it as an effort by Putin to reverse Russia’s declining international prestige by trying to unite Europeans behind a counterproposal to Washington’s own missile defense plans. An independent Russian defense analyst was quoted yesterday, however, as suggesting that Putin’s proposal was mostly hot air. Ivan Safranchuk, an analyst with the PIR-Center for Policy Studies in Russia said that “Putin’s statements… should be regarded exclusively as diplomatic political steps without any technical basis underpinning them” (AP, June 6).

Whether Putin’s proposal was aimed at exploiting sharpening differences between Washington and Europe over missile defense, or reflected a more constructive effort by Moscow to forge a U.S.-European-Russian consensus on the missile defense issue (thereby giving Russia access to advanced Western missile defense technologies), it appears to have had at least one unintended consequence. A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry suggested yesterday that Beijing may be looking at the Russian proposal with some concern. The spokeswoman said the Chinese government was itself unsure about the details of Putin’s proposal. But she suggested that Beijing would oppose any action by Moscow that could ultimately result in a rewriting of the ABM treaty (AFP, Russian agencies, June 6).

To date, the Russian government has gone to great lengths to build a common position with China in opposition to U.S. missile defense plans and Washington’s efforts to rewrite the ABM accord. Yesterday’s official comments out of Beijing, however, suggest that Moscow had not consulted with China prior to Putin’s talks with Clinton or his subsequent trip to Italy, and that the Russian leader’s remarks on potential missile cooperation with the West caught Beijing by surprise.