How Defense Clash Sours U.S.-Russia Relations

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It took the U.S. many years to convince the Soviets to sign the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and Russia's in no hurry to let it go in the face of Washington's renewed enthusiasm for a "Star Wars" missile defense system. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was forced onto the defensive Monday at a U.N. conference on nonproliferation, with even U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan supporting Moscow's reasoning and warning that U.S. efforts to build a missile defense system could jeopardize the ABM treaty and restart the nuclear arms race. Although Russian president Vladimir Putin got his legislature to ratify the START II agreement slashing U.S. and Russian missile fleets, he made it conditional on Washington's adhering to the ABM pact. But unless that treaty is renegotiated — which the Russians right now show no interest in doing — it precludes the U.S. from building the politically popular missile defense system.

Despite the skepticism of many defense analysts, it has become conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill that the U.S. needs a system of interceptor missiles, deployed in Alaska, that will be able to shoot down any incoming missiles from North Korea or other "rogue" states. Skeptics point out that despite $60 billion of investment in Reagan's "Star Wars" program and a further $10 billion envisaged by the Clinton administration, an even relatively fail-safe system of interceptor missiles remains a pipe dream. Still, that hasn't deterred either Congress or the White House from championing the program.

Unimpressed by Washington's insistence that the program is directed against rogue states, the Russians complain that the missile defense system eviscerates the whole basis of the ABM treaty: that both sides have an equally destructive attacking force. They argue that missile defense neutralizes an opponent's missile fleet, which creates a disparity that they are not prepared to live with. But building missiles is a lot cheaper than building anti-missile systems, so the response to an opponent's defense system is to simply build more missiles than it could eliminate — hence the Russian warning that if the U.S. breaks the ABM treaty, all other agreements are null and void. Russian skepticism of U.S. motives in a post-Cold War world, which peaked during the Kosovo crisis, has also left Moscow unconvinced by Washington's argument that its new system will involve too few interceptors to impair Russia's nuclear deterrent. They fear that if the system ever becomes workable it would be deployed against Russian missiles, too. With neither side showing any inclination to back down, the missile-defense controversy is starting to look decidedly like a flashback to the '60s.