Putin Plays Judo on Missile Defense

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Putin speaks during a meeting with American journalists at the Kremlin

TIME.com: As the dust settles following President Bush's visit to Europe, what is the outlook for the deployment of a missile defense system?

Mark Thompson: The whole missile defense architecture is conceptual at this point; it doesn't actually exist. President Bush wants the Russians to accept the principle of building such a system, and he may be prepared to sweeten the kitty by offering sharp reductions in each side's nuclear arsenals. But the details of that proposal will wait for the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, due this fall at the earliest.

President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that if the U.S. goes ahead and builds the system without agreement from Russia, his response will simply be to add to the number of nuclear warheads atop each missile in order to ensure Russia's ability to overwhelm a missile shield…

Yes, well that's the flip side of going ahead without a negotiated agreement. President Bush will certainly try to prevent that happening. The trouble with land-based multiple warhead missiles is that they're a very tempting target for a nuclear first strike, and therefore raise the level of nuclear tension.

Putin also seems to be talking about drawing China into international strategic arms negotiations for the first time…

Plainly, just as we were always wanting to deal with China during Cold War to break the Sino-Soviet alliance, now that the U.S. is the sole superpower it makes sense for the Russians to want to draw in China to strengthen their own position.

What about the Europeans? They appeared for the most part to agree with President Bush that a new strategic framework was necessary for a post-Cold War world, but their emphasis appeared to be on a new set of treaties rather than on a defensive missile shield…

They're certainly much more inclined towards negotiating new treaties to deal with the new threats than towards building a missile shield. But President Bush couldn't have asked for more than he got, which was an agreement to continue discussing the issue. The ball is now back in the administration's court. The Europeans have said if you want us to discuss this issue, you have to come up with something concrete for us to respond to. So it's back to the drawing board for the administration, although they always knew it was going to be.

The Russians also appear to remain strongly opposed to NATO expansion. Why does President Bush want to expand the alliance eastward?

For Republicans, it has long been a goal to have every member of the former Warsaw Pact except Russia join NATO, and for Russia to become almost but not quite a member. The problem is that any alliance shrinks as its membership grows. It becomes less efficient because consensus is tougher to achieve, and certain goals are sacrificed to a lowest common denominator. But there's a certain victorious tinge to folding the Warsaw Pact into NATO. President Bush is in a good position to encourage those who want to join to come in, but whether this will actually happen is another story.

President Putin appeared in the end to harmonize his positions with those of the Europeans more successfully than President Bush did…

Yes, but President Bush is the one coming in wanting to change the status quo. The Europeans and the Russians are much more guarded, less eager to change. So it was really by dint of their starting positions that Putin was closer to Europeans.