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US, Russia Cooperated on Terrorism, Disagreed on Missile Defense in 2001 - 2001-12-25


As 2001 drew to a close, President Bush announced America's intention to abandon the Cold War era Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The withdrawal came as no surprise. The news was in the nature of the response from Russian President Vladimir Putin: words of regret, but not outrage.

It was a dramatic example of the changing nature of ties between Washington and Moscow. The big story was the evolving relationship between two presidents and two countries.

From the start, President Bush was adamant about the need for the U.S. to develop a missile defense system. He called the 1972 ABM Treaty a relic of the past because it banned work on a missile shield. "We need new concepts of deterrence that rely on both offensive and defensive forces," Mr. Bush said.

In private meetings and public statements, Russia vehemently opposed getting rid of the ABM accord, calling it a cornerstone of arms control and warning that abandoning the treaty would disturb the balance of power.

The two presidents discussed the issue at meetings in Slovenia, Italy, China and the United States. Meanwhile, their top aides searched for a compromise that would allow testing while talks continued. In the end, the gulf was too wide.

On December 13, President Bush sent official notification to Moscow. "Today, I have given formal notice to Russia in accordance with the treaty that the United States of America is withdrawing from this almost 30-year-old treaty," the U.S. president said. "I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorists or rogue state missile attacks."

A year or two earlier, those words most likely would have caused a deep rift in relations between Moscow and Washington. Instead, Presidents Bush and Putin put the focus on the positive. Both stood by their positions on the ABM treaty. But they stressed that in the 21st century, differences on arms control would not stand in the way of progress on other matters.

President Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice says the relationship between two former enemies was transformed in 2001. "This is not a relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, between Brezhnev and Nixon, and frankly even between George Herbert Walker Bush and Gorbachev," she said. "This is a very different kind of relationship."

It is by all accounts, a relationship between two pragmatists who believe they can work together, and move far beyond the antagonisms of the Cold War. White House officials say the change was certainly noticeable at their early meetings in June and July. It grew even stronger after September 11.

On the day terrorists attacked the United States, Vladimir Putin took a big symbolic step. When American forces were put on immediate alert, Mr. Putin told President Bush the Russian military would not take reciprocal action. "And his call was, don't worry," Mr. Bush repeated to the American public. "We know what you are up against, we stand with you and we will not put our troops on alert, for the good of the United States of America."

They became allies in the war on terrorism. The Cold War focus on arms control was eclipsed by the need to come together to fight a joint enemy.

The extent of the shift became evident about two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when President Putin made his first official visit to the United States.

There were formal meetings at the White House. But the most telling moments came when the two leaders traveled to the Bush family ranch in Texas.

According to aides, they had already come to the conclusion that a compromise on the ABM treaty was unlikely. And yet, when they made an appearance at a nearby high school, they seemed remarkably at ease.

President Bush likened the relationship between their countries to ties between two friends - friends who argue sometimes, but still like each other. "We've found many areas in which we can cooperate and we've found some areas where we disagree," Mr. Bush said. "But, nevertheless, our disagreements will not divide us, as nations that need to combine to make the world more peaceful and more prosperous."

President Putin carried on the theme. He said Russia and the United States are building a relationship that can transcend even the most contentious security issues. "Our objective is a common one both for the United States and for Russia," Mr. Putin said. "The objective is to achieve security for our states, for our nations and for the entire world."

In a sign of changing times, Washington and Moscow committed themselves to deep reductions in offensive nuclear weapons even as President Bush was abandoning the ABM treaty. They hope to have some sort of agreement ready for signing when Mr. Bush travels to Russia in 2002.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001

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