Why Clinton Left Moscow Without a Missile Deal

  • Share
  • Read Later
Even under the June sunshine, Bill Clinton found Moscow a little chilly for his liking. The Yeltsin years got the U.S. president accustomed to dealing with a Russian leader as pliant as a puppy so long as his begging bowl was filled, but Sunday's summit with just-anointed President Vladimir Putin saw Mr. Clinton facing a Russian leader less prone to accommodating Western concerns. And on the key issue of missile defense, President Putin holds the cards that can make life a little uncomfortable for the U.S. leader. "President Clinton needs a deal on missile defense far more than the Russians do right now, and Moscow is showing no sign of backing down on its refusal to renegotiate the Antiballistic Missile Treaty," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier.

Here's a TIME Daily analysis of the issues on the table.

Why the rush on a missile deal?

The pressure on Clinton is based on the deadline he set following the passage of the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, and on Washington's political calendar. The President set 2005 as the deployment date for a limited missile defense system designed to target weapons fired by "rogue states," based on a congressional commission's assessment that North Korea could be in a position to target the U.S. with a long-range missile by then. To meet the deadline, however, the U.S. has to start work next spring on an advanced radar site on the Alaskan island of Shemya, where fearsome temperatures make construction work possible only during the summer months. But as soon as first concrete is poured on the site, Washington will be in violation of the 1972 ABM treaty severely limiting the extent of missile defense deployed by Washington and Moscow. Clinton wants the Russians to renegotiate the treaty to allow the system's deployment, but the answer thus far has been a stony "nyet."

Why are the Russians refusing to renegotiate the ABM treaty?

"What Washington calls 'renegotiating,' Moscow calls 'destroying' a treaty they see as the cornerstone of arms control," says Meier. The logic of the ABM was that neither side would create a shield that would allow it to fire nuclear missiles at the other without fear of devastating retaliation. Although Clinton hopes to persuade them that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among "rogue states" necessitates a new approach, the Russians see even the limited plan he has proposed as the thin end of a wedge that could ultimately neutralize their own nuclear deterrent.

What can the U.S. do if the Russians refuse to renegotiate the ABM treaty?

If the Russians maintain their opposition to making changes, Washington's only option for going ahead will be to opt out of the treaty. Although candidate George W. Bush favors this approach — or at least threatening it, to press the Russians to accept new terms — the present administration fears it could provoke a new arms race. In addition, the treaty requires that Washington inform Moscow six months ahead of time before opting out of the treaty, which makes it a policy decision that would have to be taken smack in the middle of a U.S. presidential election season.

How do political concerns affect U.S. decisions on missile defense?

Missile defense remains politically popular in the U.S. — so much so that the administration favors the limited version designed to deploy some 250 interceptor missiles against "rogue states," while the Bush campaign favors a massive missile shield that protects the U.S. and its allies from all missile threats. This despite the fact that skeptics have questioned everything from the system's cost and viability to its potential to destabilize the existing arms control regime. Some of Washington's key European allies used President Clinton's valedictory tour this week to echo Russia's warning that building a missile-defense system without Moscow's consent may compel Moscow and possibly Beijing, too, to deploy more missiles in order to achieve the capacity to overwhelm a U.S. interceptor system, therefore maintaining the deterrent value of their own arsenals. Although President Clinton is committed to making a decision this summer over whether to proceed with building the initial phase of the system, he may be tempted to use the system's patchy performance in prototype testing as an excuse to leave the decision to the next president and neutralize it as an election issue.

Will Putin stick to his guns on missile defense?

Although he's threatening to burn down the house of arms control if the U.S. proceeds without Russian approval, Putin needs a deal with Washington for his own reasons — maintaining the existing Russian missile fleet may tax Moscow's resources beyond their capacity, and the substantial cuts envisaged for both sides as part of a START III framework treaty will help Russia maintain an affordable nuclear deterrent. That creates a powerful incentive for Putin to seek new arms control agreements. The difference is that while Clinton is under the gun, Putin has plenty of time on his hands. "Right now, Clinton needs a deal a lot more than the Russians do, because going ahead with his missile defense plan without Russian approval could lead to a dangerous ratcheting up of tension between Washington and Moscow," says Meier. "But from Putin's end, he's looking likely to get the IMF credits he needs, the rise in oil prices has helped his economy recover, and the war in Chechnya hasn't cost him much in terms of foreign pressure. So he may hold out for the U.S. to throw in bargaining chips that have nothing to do with arms control."