White House

After disdaining arms control, Bush seeks to engage Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Rodionov / Itar-Tass via Abaca Press

WASHINGTON — President Bush took office disavowing the complex treaty negotiations with Moscow that consumed years of Cold War diplomacy, saying that Russia and the United States had moved beyond decades of nuclear rivalry into an era of cooperation.

But with 15 months left in his second term, his administration and the Kremlin are deadlocked in exactly the kind of diplomatic wrangling that he'd foresworn.

Bush is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a rare joint mission to Moscow this week in a bid to break arms disputes that have helped plunge U.S.-Russian ties to their chilliest depth since the Cold War.

Over Russian objections, Bush is pursuing the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe. In apparent retaliation, Russian President Vladimir Putin is vowing to pull out of an accord limiting deployments of troops, tanks and combat aircraft in Europe and Russia. Their governments disagree on replacing an expiring treaty that's allowed each side to monitor the other's promised cuts in nuclear weapons.

"We want to work on these areas regardless . . . of differences that we have with the Russians in other areas," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said.

Unless they show the will to resolve their differences in talks Friday, many experts fear that cooperation on nuclear arms reductions and counter-terrorism could suffer.

"This visit provides the last best opportunity to lay the foundation for bold initiatives," Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told a Washington policy institute Monday. "Refusal to seek common ground dooms the entire effort to failure."

Some experts doubt that Bush and Putin, who leaves office in less than a year, have the time — or in Bush's case, the political muscle — to work out the compromises necessary to arrest the slide in relations.

"There is a real risk of rupture in the fabric of the U.S.-Russian security relationship," warned Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, which supports arms control accords.

Others think that Rice, Gates and their Russian counterparts can find a way Friday to keep security cooperation on track.

After tepidly receiving Putin's initial proposals for a joint approach to missile defense, the Bush administration says it's studying his latest initiative. Moscow proposals include wiring a Russian early-warning radar in Azerbaijan and one in southern Russia into the U.S. missile-defense network and a European system planned by NATO. Both Washington and Moscow have expressed concern about a threat from long-range missiles that Iran is thought to be developing.

But Bush appears determined to proceed over the Kremlin's objections and build a sophisticated radar in the Czech Republic for guiding10 interceptors based in Poland into collisions with Iranian warheads.

Moscow contends that the sites could track and destroy Russian missiles and could be expanded into defenses against Russia's shrinking force of long-range nuclear missiles, upsetting the strategic balance with the United States.

Rice has dismissed Russia's concerns as "ludicrous." But two U.S. physicists, George N. Lewis and Theodore Postol, writing in the Arms Control Association's Arms Control Today, said Moscow could "rightly conclude that the system might be designed to counter Russia's (nuclear) deterrent in addition to a nuclear attack from Iran."

Many experts think that Putin decision's to withdraw from the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty this December is partly in retaliation for Bush's refusal to reconsider the U.S. missile-defense plan.

"This is one of the ways that they (the Russians) believe they can demonstrate their displeasure," Kimball said.

The treaty, considered a cornerstone of European security, set limits on non-nuclear forces between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. It resulted in the destruction of some 60,000 combat vehicles and aircraft.

The accord was amended in 1999 to compensate for the Warsaw Pact's collapse. NATO countries, however, have refused to ratify the new version until Russia withdraws troops from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.

Moscow rejects the linkage, and demands the pact's ratification. Angered by NATO's encroachment on its borders, the Kremlin also demands lower weapons ceilings for alliance members and the right to keep more of its forces in Russia's restive southern republics.

Friday's talks also will address the fate of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which is due to expire in December 2009.

The treaty is credited with lowering the threat of nuclear war. It required massive cuts in nuclear arsenals and created an elaborate system of inspections, data sharing, satellite monitoring of weapons sites and test notifications to guard against cheating.

Unless it's replaced, Moscow and Washington will lose the primary means by which they make sure that each is complying with a 2002 treaty that requires them to slash the numbers of nuclear warheads on their bombers, long-range missiles and submarines to no more than 2,200 by Dec. 31, 2012.

At U.S. insistence, the 2002 Treaty of Moscow contained no inspection mechanisms, forcing the sides to rely on the mechanisms in START I.

The Bush administration considers the START I monitoring scheme an outdated remnant of the Cold War. It wants to replace it with an informal arrangement of looser inspections that would allow the Pentagon more freedom to develop weapons to meet new threats.

Russia, however, rejects the U.S. proposal and demands a legally binding pact.

Lugar urged both sides to extend the START I treaty and the Bush administration to drop its refusal to negotiate a legally binding replacement.

"The current Russian-American relationship is complicated enough without introducing greater elements of uncertainty into the nuclear relationship," he said.

U.S. intelligence agencies oppose the administration's position. They've warned the White House that if the START I monitoring system is abandoned, they won't be able to determine with high confidence whether Moscow is cheating on the 2002 treaty.

Related stories from McClatchy DC