Neither Clinton nor Putin blinks

Summit gains little

leaders to talk more on missile defense

June 05, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - President Clinton made his case for a missile defense program at a summit meeting here yesterday, and President Vladimir V. Putin made his case against one. Then both leaders agreed that at least they understand one another and will keep talking.

The White House achieved no breakthroughs in its talks with the Kremlin - none was really expected - but the Russians acknowledged that new sorts of nuclear threats have emerged in the past few years from other countries and that they must somehow be addressed.

The two leaders, on the second day of their meeting, also discussed economic reform, corruption and global warming. Clinton brought up the issue of human rights violations in Chechnya - a topic that, in his public statements at least, Putin did not discuss.

The meetings were described as candid but not confrontational. Last night, Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, was asked about the discussion on economic crime, and his answer summed up the tone of the day: "Serious problem. Gotta work on it together."

But the nuts and bolts of a solution will have to wait.

The presidents did sign two agreements that had been roughed out in an earlier meeting between Clinton and Putin's predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin. One requires each country to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make thousands of nuclear bombs, to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. The program will cost the United States an estimated $4 billion, a senior Clinton administration official said, and Russia about $1.75 billion.

The United States is asking other members of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan - to help pay Russia's share.

The second agreement establishes a jointly operated early warning system to provide an exchange of information about the launch of missiles and rockets.

But probably more significant than any specific results that might come out of this summit was the chance for the two presidents to size each other up.

Putin has been trying to strengthen his hold on Russia: Will that serve the rule of law, which the country badly needs, or will it be a new tyranny? The United States has been pushing economic reforms on Russia for a decade, reforms that most Russians believe have been misbegotten and ruinous to their nation: Will Washington insist on more of the same?

And, most prominently, the United States is considering whether to pursue a national missile defense. Clinton says the anti-missile system would protect the country against so-called rogue states, but Putin says it would undermine the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and lead to a new arms race.

"We expressed our differences with clarity and candor," Clinton said. "I, for one, appreciate that."

Putin neither banged the table with his shoe, as Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev once did, nor did he give Clinton [a far bigger man] a bear hug, as Yeltsin often did.

The Russian president noted that relations with the United States have had their highs and lows over the past eight years, but the good times established a trust that enabled the countries to weather the bad, "to always find a way out of these crises with honor."

"And we really cherish this," Putin said.

He would not be moved in his opposition to the missile defense system. "We're against a cure that's worse than the disease," Putin said. But he did not shut the door on listening to further U.S. arguments.

The presidents signed a statement in which they pledged to do nothing to upset the strategic balance between the United States and Russia. That means that they won't undermine each other's deterrence capabilities, or, in other words, each country will still be able to launch a full-scale nuclear counterattack if the other strikes first.

That was intended to reassure Russia that a U.S. missile defense shield would not create an invulnerable United States.

In the same statement, they recognized that the nature of nuclear threats has changed, particularly since the ABM treaty was signed 28 years ago.

"They agree the international community faces a dangerous and growing threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery," the statement said, "and stress their desire to reverse that process."

Putin pushed for new reductions in offensive weapons in a START 3 treaty, to 1,500 nuclear warheads per country. The U.S. goal has been 2,000 to 2,500. Going below that, Clinton said, would require a change in U.S. strategic policy - and that would be easier to accomplish if there were a way to address the new threat of rogue states.

On questions of the economy, corruption, the role of the state, freedom of the press and a continuing war in Chechnya, Clinton repeatedly declared that he knew Putin would do the right thing.

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