Progress, But No Breakthrough, at Missile Talks

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The weekend wasn't an entire loss for President Clinton. Sure, he didn't get Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to agree to modifications in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that would allow the U.S. to build its Son of Star Wars missile defense system in Alaska. But nobody really expected that. There's little incentive for Putin to sign off on a deal that could throw his country into a new arms race at a time when Russia definitely needs more butter and fewer guns. And time is on the Russian side — Clinton would like to get a big foreign policy success through before he leaves office, while Putin can afford to wait to negotiate with the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Russians were nice hosts, though, in some little things— like removing the ashtrays from conference room tables as a courtesy to the nonsmoking Americans — and in some big things, the largest of which was a deal in which each side agreed to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. That pact, combined with one creating in Moscow a joint U.S.-Russian center to monitor missile launches, allowed Clinton aides to proclaim a "highly significant and unprecedented" breakthrough in the arms talks. And in some ways it is; 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium is enough to create 8,000 Hiroshima-sized nukes, and disposing of the that is always nice, even if it will cost an estimated $5.75 billion (the U.S. will appeal to other countries to help pick up the tab). For START III, that's a decent start.