Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 113

The struggle for the hearts and minds of Europeans on the subject of ballistic missile defense intensified yesterday as U.S. officials maneuvered to sideline a recent Russian proposal for the building of a joint Russian-U.S.-NATO theater missile defense for Europe. The U.S. actions came during a gathering of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and U.S. Defense Undersecretary Walter Slocombe led the effort to make clear American reservations about the still vague Russian missile defense proposal. The U.S. delegation was apparently careful not to dismiss the Russian plan altogether, but argued instead that it might serve at best as a “supplement and not a substitute” for Washington’s own planned limited national missile defense system.

Yesterday’s maneuvering in Brussels, which followed by only days Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the Russian proposal, came on the eve of Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s arrival in the Belgian capital. Sergeev, who is to take part in the second of two days of talks in Brussels–under the aegis of the Russian-NATO Permanent Joint Council–is expected to provide additional information to Western military leaders about Putin’s proposal. The Russian plan is believed to involve the development of a ballistic system by Russia, NATO and the United States which would use theater-based weapons to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles during their “boost” phase. U.S. officials–Cohen and Slocombe among them–continued to argue yesterday that the Russian plan would actually require the surmounting of greater technical difficulties than the missile defense system currently being developed by the United States. They also argued that it would take longer to deploy and could not be in place by the year 2005–the date by which some U.S. intelligence officials believe that North Korea might field a long-range ballistic missile. European defense sources were also quoted yesterday as saying that the technology underlying the Putin proposal was even more complicated and uncertain than that being developed in the United States.

Indeed, as both Cohen suggested and one British newspaper argued, the Putin plan appears to have been voiced not as a credible technical alternative to the U.S. missile defense system, but rather as a political ploy aimed primarily at stoking European fears of the U.S. system. One fact tending to support that interpretation was Putin’s apparent failure to describe the missile defense proposal to U.S. President Bill Clinton during their summit meeting in Washington last weekend. Instead, only a day after the failure of the two men to reach an agreement on missile defense and on U.S. efforts to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Putin unexpectedly announced his own missile defense proposal during a visit to Italy on June 5-6. The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday that Putin is expected to step up Russia’s propaganda war against the U.S. missile defense system during a visit to Berlin next week. The German government has been among Europe’s most skeptical on the question of U.S. missile defense plans, a point which was made to Clinton during his recent visit to Berlin.

Maneuvering among Russia, Europe and the United States over missile defense has been further complicated this week by reported European interest in Clinton’s own offer–made during stops in Europe preceding his arrival in Moscow–which suggested Washington might be willing to share U.S. missile defense technology with Europe. That offer, aimed at allaying concerns that the deployment of a U.S. missile shield would threaten Europe’s security, remains in its preliminary stages, however. Among the apparent obstacles to a realization of any such plan are European financial constraints. As Julio Castro Caldez, the Portuguese defense minister, told reporters: “I do not see how you can convince European partners to increase their budgets” to pay for a defense system. “We don’t have the money” (Intentional Herald Tribune, June 9; AP, UPI, Reuters, June 8).

Speculation, meanwhile, has continued this week that Putin’s talk in Italy of a possible joint Russian-NATO-U.S. defense shield has raised some concerns in Beijing. China has joined with Russia in vehement opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, and a Chinese government spokesperson sounded less than enthusiastic this week when talking about Putin’s latest proposal. This Chinese reaction may be at least partly behind what a news source said yesterday was an unusual use of the Russian-Chinese hotline by Russia’s president. The report said that Putin had used the hot line to telephone Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Their talks reportedly included a briefing on this past weekend’s Clinton-Putin talks, and on a host of other bilateral and international issues. But the two men also reportedly discussed recent developments involving arms control and missile defense. Putin is scheduled to have talks with Jiang in mid-July, and will also meet with him early next month at a summit meeting of leaders from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (UPI, June 8).