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US ABM Treaty Withdrawal Not Expected to Hurt Ties With Russia - 2001-12-14

As widely predicted, the United States Thursday announced its withdrawal from a 1972 arms control treaty in order to pursue development of a new missile defense system. Washington made the decision despite objections by Russia and concerns expressed by some close allies.

Although the Russians criticized the U.S. withdrawal, it is not expected to hurt bilateral relations. Differences over the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile, or ABM, Treaty were a source of tension between Russia and the United States for most of this year. The Bush administration made it clear it considered the treaty a Cold War relic and wanted to scrap it in order to proceed with testing for a new missile defense shield. Russian leaders condemned this unilateral approach, and issued dire warnings of the damage the American decision would cause to global strategic security. Meetings between envoys, presidential summits and a visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in early December failed to secure a compromise.

When President Bush made the official announcement in Washington Thursday, it came as no surprise. The Russians were told in advance the Americans were going to announce their withdrawal, just as the Americans were given indications the Russians would express muted regret.

Shortly after the Bush announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted in a brief nationwide television address.

President Putin said the American decision was not unexpected, but nonetheless a mistake. He said the decision does not pose a threat to Russia, which has an effective system capable of overcoming any new missile defense program. But, President Putin said, Russia believes the ABM treaty is an important pillar representing many years of mutual effort and negotiations. He warned that, in today's world, with its new threats, there should be no vacuum in global security. Mr. Putin also called for continued cuts in nuclear stockpiles.

President Putin basically restated Russia's position that the ABM treaty, signed in 1972 by then U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, is part of an important framework of arms control agreements that gave some guarantee for strategic stability. Russia, and even some close U.S. allies, warned that abandoning the treaty would create a vacuum in this network, and lead to a potential new arms race.

Russian journalist and political analyst Masha Lipman says that, despite his misgivings over the U.S. move, President Putin chose to deliver a muted response. "Within two hours after President Bush's statement, he [Putin] made his own, expressing regret, but saying this is not a threat to Russian security, which is a powerful statement and making it clear that cooperation with the United States on non-proliferation, on reducing the number of offensive nuclear weapons will continue," she said.

Ms. Lipman says Mr. Putin's message was also meant to send a clear signal to political and military figures in Russia, who might disagree with the president's views. She says the president's quick reaction was intended to silence any opposition.

Most analysts here say that, despite what some in Russian political and military circles may think, President Putin knows full well that Russia is not on equal footing with the United States, and cannot stop the development of a U.S. missile defense system.

Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer describes Mr. Putin's reaction as the latest example of Russia's changing relationship with the United States - a change accelerated by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Felgenhauer says Russia's subsequent support for the U.S.-led global coalition against terror made clear he had decided to cast his lot with the West. "He [Putin] decided that Russia's future as a world power is with the West - understanding - that the only way for Russia to modernize is to be a Western ally," he said. "Russia needs modern technology, not only civilian technology. We actually need Western military technology, because our own former Soviet defense industry is increasingly incapable of making really modern end products, without the help of Western components and western technology."

Most analysts here agree that Mr. Putin sees a good opportunity for Russia, and he is not about to let the ABM issue get in the way.