U.S., Russia to develop a joint missile defense

`Unstable regimes' identified as threat

August 01, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A fanciful dream first conjured up by Ronald Reagan 14 years ago will take a step toward reality next month when the United States and Russia begin serious talks on the joint development of a system intended to destroy incoming missiles.

In White House talks last week, President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Sergei V. Stepashin spoke at length about the emerging threat of missile attacks from rogue nations, hinting at a growing consensus around efforts to develop anti-missile defense systems.

Though no specific proposals were offered by either side, both emerged from the talks speaking of mutual interests in missile defense. Stepashin said both nations should work together toward a "global security system."

"The ballistic missile threat is not from Russia but from unstable regimes," Stepashin told reporters. "These threats also affect Russia."

Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, said more cautiously, "It is conceivable that we could cooperate in such a way that would protect American security, but would also provide tangible benefits to the Russians."

The very idea that the United States and Russia are working jointly toward the development of an anti-missile defense program marks a startling turnabout. Moscow had long insisted that the 1972 Anti--Ballistic Missile treaty was inviolable and that neither side could go beyond the single-site, limited defense system allowed under that accord. U.S. officials, along with the Russians, now envision a true national missile defense system.

Yet there is no guarantee that engineers would be able to make it work. Thus far, the talks have been abstract. Next month, arms control negotiators will try to develop more concrete joint research projects when they resume talks on further reductions in nuclear arms and the future of the ABM treaty.

Russia's parliament has refused to ratify the START II arms reduction treaty hammered out in 1993, and the U.S. missile defense efforts have been central to its intransigence.

Some Russian members say they should not be ratifying a new arms control treaty just when the United States plans to abrogate the ABM accord. Others in the Russian parliament have insisted that Russia must maintain a high level of ballistic missiles so it can overwhelm any American defense shield.

Back to the table

But a convergence of circumstances and looming political deadlines are pushing both sides back to the bargaining table. President Boris N. Yeltsin's government wants to break the logjam over START II, which would reduce both nations' arsenals of long-range nuclear warheads to no more than 3,500 each, and move toward START III, which would reduce arsenals to 2,500 warheads or fewer. For the ailing Russian economy, that level would be more manageable.

Indeed, Russia announced last week that it would hold discussions on START III with the United States in Moscow later this month.

Yeltsin needs to make progress before negotiations are consumed by the politics of the Russian parliamentary elections this fall, and progress on arms reduction has become bound up with missile defense and the ABM treaty.

The Clinton administration faces its own deadline. Earlier this year, the White House yielded to pressure from Republicans in Congress and dropped its long-standing resistance to an anti--missile system.

The president then signed legislation making it national policy to deploy a nationwide missile defense system "as soon as technologically possible."

Under an earlier agreement with Congress, Clinton pledged to decide next year whether to go forward with that deployment. Clinton hopes to negotiate changes in the ABM treaty in advance of that decision.

Drawing the Russians into a cooperative relationship, Berger said, could make a decision to deploy more palatable in Moscow and provide "a greater incentive to make changes in the ABM treaty."

"We want to reduce the overall nuclear stockpile," a State Department official said. "We want to preserve existing treaties, and we want to be able to deal with a new generation of threats with a new generation of technology. How you do all those things means looking at all three at once and as a whole."

Moreover, advances in missile capabilities -- especially in North Korea and Iran -- have given both the United States and Russia cause for concern. Members of Congress have suggested building a missile defense system in Russia's Far East to shoot down possible North Korean missiles, or a system in the south of Russia to guard against Iranian or Iraqi missile launches.

"I think people want to explore this," said a White House official familiar with the talks. "We haven't talked in concrete terms, but there's a lot of potential here."

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