Putin Gets a Win on U.S. Missile Defense Plan

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Moscow — no surprise — is delighted with Bill Clinton's announcement on Friday that he's leaving the decision on whether to deploy a missile shield to the next president. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been urging Clinton to scrap the U.S. plan for a national missile defense, and he's been making the rounds in European capitals to badmouth the idea. The Clinton administration envisioned first deploying 100 interceptors in Alaska to protect against a future missile threat from North Korea, then fielding another 100 interceptors at a North Dakota base to guard against rogue-state missiles from the Middle East. The U.S. wants Russia to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow for the deployments. Russia's military can't afford to build a shield in response, so Putin balks at any tinkering with the accord. But Clinton said Friday he still isn't convinced that the technology is at hand for a workable missile shield, so George W. Bush or Al Gore will have to decide whether to deploy it.

That's fine by Moscow. "It's a gift for Putin," a Russian official says gleefully. The young Russian president has had mixed results with his international lobbying to derail the American defense plan. European governments are sympathetic; they're skeptical Clinton's son-of-Star Wars plan would work and, if it did, they worry their countries would be left out of the shield. But Putin has had egg on his face since a July trip to North Korea when he announced after a meeting with Kim Jong Il that the "Dear Leader" was open to scrapping his missile program in exchange for the West launching his space satellites. No North Korean missiles, no need for a national missile defense, the Russian president could argue. But later, a South Korean newspaper quoted Kim as saying that his offer to Putin had been a joke.

Kim's joke — State Department officials are still checking with their North Korean contacts to see if he was serious or really trying to be funny — made Putin look like a rookie diplomat. Now he can boast at home that he succeeded in convincing Clinton to delay a decision. The Russian and American presidents met in June and July, but announced no agreement on missile defenses. "This enables Putin to say that his firm stand on the ABM Treaty has been vindicated and that Clinton listened to his arguments," said the Russian official.

Not quite. White House aides say there were other reasons for Clinton deferring a deployment decision. "It's not just Putin," says a Clinton adviser. Besides worries over the technology, Clinton could not get a green light from European leaders. Clinton and Putin meet in New York on Tuesday at the United Nations Millennium Summit. But Clinton won't likely make any headway getting Putin to warm to national missile defense — certainly not with the American president still undecided about its feasibility.