Sunday’s meeting in Genoa between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, which unexpectedly produced an agreement linking missile defense and strategic arms reduction talks, has reverberated as strongly in the Russian media as it has in many Western news outlets. Indeed, for a president who has committed few obvious missteps and whose actions on a host of foreign and security policies have often been supported by the country’s generally compliant media, Putin’s apparent decision at the summit of the Group of Seven countries and Russia to open up discussion of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty summoned up a surprisingly heated and polarizing public debate.
The most provocative position was staked out by the Kommersant newspaper, owned by Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, which immediately branded the Putin-Bush agreement as nothing less than a Russian surrender on the crucial missile defense issue (Kommersant, July 23). Other Russian news sources, however, some of which denounced the Kommersant report, moved just as quickly to defend Putin. Their defenses ranged from praise for the Kremlin’s new-found “pragmatism”–albeit in some cases with the parallel admission that the Russian president had indeed made a significant concession in Genoa–to those which hewed more closely to the Kremlin’s own post-summit claim that Putin had in no way weakened Russian determination to protect the ABM accord. While initial impressions can be misleading, the brouhaha in Moscow suggested that the Russian president may unwittingly have stepped into something of a political minefield, and that he will have to guard against a backlash from nationalist Russian forces, including perhaps some in the military leadership, if he has in fact decided to meet Washington halfway on the ABM issue.
That is, of course, if the terse July 22 Russian-U.S. joint statement–in which the two presidents agreed “that major changes in the world require concrete discussions of both offensive and defensive systems”–represents a genuine readiness by the Russian side to negotiate substantive changes in the ABM treaty. While the July 23 Washington Times, for example, headlined the agreement as Putin’s commitment “to scuttle ABM,” a host of other commentators in Russia and abroad were less certain about the agreement’s real implications. Some suggested that the Kremlin was merely playing for time by seeking to enmesh Washington in a negotiating process that would, of necessity, compel the Bush administration to decelerate a declared missile defense-testing schedule that could bring the United States quickly into violation of the ABM treaty. Indeed, Spurgeon Keeny, director of the private Arms Control Association, argued that the new agreement would actually serve those who remain skeptical of the Bush administration’s missile defense plans–including the Europeans and Democrats in Congress–because it will have “the effect of building time into the process and pushing it down the road” (AP, July 23). U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key missile defense skeptic, spun the issue in a similar fashion. He welcomed the Bush-Putin statement on the grounds that the Bush administration is unlikely to “break out of the ABM treaty” while Russian-U.S. negotiations are ongoing (AP, July 22).
The Bush administration, however, moved quickly after the July 22 meeting to allay such perceptions. Bush himself said during a meeting on July 23 with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that “time is of the essence–[and] if we can’t reach agreement, we’re going to implement.” A senior U.S. official was quoted simultaneously as saying that the Bush administration had no plans to slow the pace of its missile defense development plans, and that there had been no change in the administration’s intention to develop “the most effective system at the earliest possible date.” U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice reinforced the same message, also on July 23, when she said that though Putin had not been given a time limit, the Pentagon would continue to move toward missile defense tests prohibited under the ABM accord. Rice was scheduled to arrive in Moscow last night to begin talks with the Russians on the development of what the Bush administration has called a “new security framework” (Reuters, July 23; New York Times, July 24).
In Moscow, meanwhile, the Kremlin pedaled furiously to rebuff suggestions that the Russian leader had made concessions in Genoa. During a meeting with cabinet officials on July 23, for instance, Putin bluntly denied that there had been a major breakthrough in Genoa and said that “we confirmed our adherence to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.” He defended the Putin-Bush joint statement more generally, moreover, arguing that it could open the way to taking “significant steps to reduce levels of strategic weapons”–a policy that he said is in Russia’s interest–and that the agreement had the added benefit of ensuring that national missile defense and strategic weapons are “examined as a whole–one section without any doubt depends on the other” (AP, Reuters, July 23). Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, preparing for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Hanoi, likewise defended the Putin-Bush agreement, saying that Russia had in fact always supported the linking of missile defense and strategic arms talks and that the Genoa agreement therefore represented no departure from existing Russian policy (Strana.ru, July 24).
This same argument was developed more fully, moreover, by analyst Dmitry Gornostaev in a piece published on the Kremlin-connected Strana.ru web site. Clearly serving as a Kremlin mouthpiece, Gornostaev argued that the Russian-U.S. joint statement had in fact served Russian goals by overturning a Bush administration policy of separating offensive and defensive strategic arms talks and by returning negotiations between the two countries to a format not unlike those that prevailed before Bush assumed the presidency. “In essence,” Gornostaev writes, “this is a return to the past–to the time of the Clinton administration–to a format of Russian-U.S. consultations on questions of strategic stability that included both strategic offensive weapons and missile defense.” He claimed that the Genoa meeting had also boosted another Russian initiative, one calling for the creation of working groups to discuss these issues. Russia had already formed its delegations, Gornostaev observed, and had been waiting for the United States to do the same. He claimed that the Genoa meeting had compelled the U.S. administration to commit publicly to launching these arms talks. He concluded, not surprisingly, by asserting that the Genoa agreement in no way threatened to bury the ABM treaty. Equally important, Gornostaev suggested that Putin’s agreement in Genoa that there have been changes in the world did not signal, as some sources have suggested, the Russian president’s embrace of the Bush administration’s world view and its concomitant call for missile defense. Admitting that the world has changed also should not be interpreted to mean that Moscow is prepared to abandon the ABM treaty, Gornostaev wrote, “which is a most important treaty and which has made it possible to preserve global stability” for nearly twenty-nine years (Strana.ru, July 23).
The Russian debate over the July 22 statement seems set nevertheless to intensify. Kommersant has staked out an obviously oppositionist position, while a commentary in Nezavisimaya Gazeta did just the opposite by assuming a posture of almost obsequious praise for the Russian president’s performance in Genoa (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 24). The generally pro-government Izvestia, on the other hand, published one commentary (by Yevgeny Bai) suggesting that Putin’s actions in Italy had sharply undermined those U.S. congressional Democrats who oppose the Bush administration’s missile defense plans, and another suggesting that Putin had indeed made concessions to Bush, but that the prospect of improved ties with Washington justified them (Izvestia, July 24-25). The sharp differences in the analysis of these various commentaries were noteworthy in part for what they say about the complexity of the issues at hand and the difficulties still to be confronted in the arms control talks scheduled to take place in the weeks to come. They are also interesting for the contrast they provide to Russian press commentary in the wake of the first Bush-Putin meeting last month in Slovenia. On that occasion a number of Russian publications triumphantly proclaimed Putin to have been the victor, and suggested that he had outclassed his U.S. counterpart in the course of a brief meeting in Slovenia (see the Monitor, June 18, 20).
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