Squeeze Play

Posted: May 31, 2001 12:00 AM
The mating dance, Washington-Moscow, almost takes us back to the Cold War years, which continue to be informative. The background:

In 1972, there was the ABM Treaty, which is being hallowed as the Constitutional Convention of the missile age. Its postulates are that the signatories, the United States and Russia, should not take measures to defend themselves against missiles headed at each other. That way, the architects reasoned, any temptation to engage in first-strike offense would be mitigated by the knowledge that retaliation was possible. If we couldn't defend ourselves against Russian missiles, we wouldn't undertake to deliver our own.

What has happened, of course, is that there is no longer a balance of terror between the two great superpowers. That, and an albescent technology which holds out the hope not that a flotilla of missiles could be stopped in mid-air, but that a few missiles could be intercepted. That is the reasoning behind the proposal by the Bush administration, carrying on a vision of Ronald Reagan's, to build an anti-missile system, an enterprise very much in the works now, though at the planning stage.

Russia opposes this emphatically. So emphatically that people have begun to forget to ask the basic question: Why should this be so? What have the Russians to lose from any success by the United States in achieving some kind of protection from nuclear missiles?

The answer to this is that the only thing the Russians would stand to lose is a projected world scene in which everybody had an anti-missile system, resulting in a loss of the military edge Russia now has against potentially fractious nations, which currently behave themselves knowing the Great Bear is not to be trifled with nuclearwise. But all projections have to be limited by reality, and reality tells us that it is inconceivable that Moscow would emerge, in an age of anti-missile technology, fearing that Iran or Iraq or India or Japan would proceed aggressively against Russia with a sense of immunity to Russia's huge arsenal of nuclear weapons.

So what is it that Russia genuinely fears? It is the loss of the grand status Russia has enjoyed (and profited from) in the past, as the other nuclear superpower. If the United States, in five years, developed an anti-missile technology sufficient to deflect or deter threat from minor potential aggressors, the standing of Russia would be marginalized. If in order to protect ourselves from Iran, we could proceed without tripartite understandings with Russia, the role of Russia would recede in strategic calculations. This grates on Russian pride.

The American approach to the problem has been Yankee-oriented. We have approached Vladimir Putin and told him, ah, that the Russians had a whole lot of things the United States would pay cash to get. We have talked about Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which are highly developed. We would be willing to pay a lot of money for these, we've passed the word on. And it is hardly as if we were purchasing a system kept by Moscow only for its own use. The Russians have sold the S-300 to "dozens of nations," in the language of Michael Wines of The New York Times.

But the offer to purchase the S-300 is part of a basket, designed to appeal and indeed to seduce Moscow. What is offered up is an idea of an interdependent system, which would provide simultaneous protection to them and to us. Moreover, the development of such a system would call for employing Soviet missile scientists, a dispossessed class since the end of the Cold War, an economic drag on Russia, and a footloose threat to the United States, as there is always a market for scientists who can help little countries who want to be big threats to become that.

So far, our inducements to Moscow have not worked, and as June 16 approaches, when Mr. Bush will meet with Mr. Putin in Slovenia, no agenda has been formulated on which to proceed to discuss the problem. Mr. Putin's position is that the ABM Treaty is, in the language of Defense Minister Ivanov, the fundamental brick. "You cannot take a brick out of a wall and hope that it will stand."

Well, of course you can. Depending on your priorities, you can come up with another brick (alternative guarantees to Russia) or decide that you really don't want or need that wall (proceed to rescind the treaty).

The principal leverage of Putin isn't his nuclear arsenal and his threat not to diminish the size of it. Nothing Bush proposes to do in any way affects that question or its implications. His leverage is the opinion of our allies. More accurately (is France really an ally?), the opinion of other countries, and the continuing hold liberal international pundits have on American policy.