N. Korean Crashes Condi's Party

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Kim Jong Il speaks in Vladivostok, Russia

TIME.com: Russia remains unconvinced about the Bush administration's missile defense plans despite talks in Moscow this week with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice. What is President Putin's game plan on the issue?

Andrew Meier: We saw a rather bizarre example of President Vladimir Putin's bifurcated foreign policy at work during her visit. Just as he concluded a friendship pact with China that expressed opposition to missile defense before flying off to Genoa where he was all smiles with President Bush, this week saw Moscow combining the Rice visit with a 6,000-mile train trip to Moscow by North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il. It was a bizarre spectacle — Kim traveled across Russia's far east on a train that included 21 Japanese-made armored carriages, with darkened windows, and then emerged for Soviet-style welcomes dressed in a black smock with sunglasses and his bouffant hairdo. He looked like a visiting Hollywood director, being welcomed by hundreds of Russian soldiers, and officials making speeches professing mutual friendship that sounded like they could have been written in 1975. The spectacle left even many Russian foreign policy experts gaping in disbelief.

And the timing can hardly be coincidental. Kim hardly ever travels abroad, and yet at a time when a top U.S. cabinet official is in Moscow discussing a missile shield intended, in significant part, to counter North Korea's potential missile capability, and here you have the North Korean leader suddenly turning up in eastern Russia on a slow train to Moscow.

And then in keeping with the schizophrenia of the current foreign policy, Russian officials downplayed his visit as a personal trip, visiting places of importance to his family. But the timing is all-important, because Kim is not a man who takes his travel casually. Gestures aside, the Russians clearly want a deal on National Missile Defense.

What kind of deal are they discussing?

Rice said the U.S. wants to avoid being perceived as violating the ABM treaty. And that forms the basis of the Russian game plan. Washington made clear that a robust testing plan for a missile defense system will begin shortly. They won't get into the semantics of when they'll violate the terms of the 1972 treaty, but it's clear that they will. The Russians may be waiting for that phase to begin, and to then denounce the U.S. as the violator of treaties.

Both sides insist that they are not negotiating, merely holding "consultations." The Russians are insisting that they've never said the ABM treaty can't be modernized. Rice says Washington doesn't believe in tinkering with a 30-year old treaty, which is what the Russians want. But most good, independent Russian arms control experts say that no matter how much the treaty is modernized, the ABM treaty is by its very definition an obstacle to National Missile Defense.

Presumably the Russians know they can't stop the Bush administration going ahead. So what is their strategic perspective on missile defense as an eventuality?

Like many experts in the U.S. and Europe, the Russians don't really believe the scheme is feasible right now, and they are happy to watch the Americans spend large amounts of money on an unproven technology. Rice is discussing a defense proposition whose architecture doesn't exist right now. She's emphasizing that whatever is built will be transparent. The Bush people clearly have come some way in that they have held their ground and convinced the Russians that will go forward. Rice's discussions are not about whether a missile defense system will be built, but about how.

But Washington wants at least an unwritten agreement on this score, because it will be damaging for the U.S. to be perceived as having violated an international treaty, and establishing a precedent. But at the end of the day, despite the friction over NMD, the relationship between Washington and Moscow is a lot warmer than it has been for some time. A Russian foreign ministry official today told me, "We like these Republicans; we know exactly where we stand with them." And that's a Soviet tradition.