Trusting Putin

Arms talk: Both powers see national interest in fewer warheads, which is not the same as a deal.

November 18, 2001

PRESIDENTS Bush and Putin did not make a disarmament agreement at their three-day summit.

They aligned unilateral policies in a way that President Bush says makes agreements unnecessary, while Russia's president still wants them.

Each had campaigned in his own country for reducing nuclear warheads, for cost savings. Now they have come together.

If the number of U.S. warheads goes from something like 4,000 to the neighborhood of 2,200, the United States could still destroy all the targets the Pentagon has identified in Russia or any other country, with nuclear explosives launched from air, sea and land.

Russia could knock out this country with the 1,000 or 1,500 that Vladimir Putin wants to achieve.

That is not disarmament. And without binding the aspirations of third countries, it is hardly arms control. President Reagan used to say, "Trust, but verify." George W. Bush says, "Trust." Mr. Putin still wants a treaty where Mr. Bush prefers a handshake.

Significantly, Mr. Bush did not win Mr. Putin over to a national missile defense. Mr. Putin wants to see the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty amended but retained. Mr. Bush wants it abandoned.

This is a significant difference, but about language and appearance. To deploy an effective national missile defense, Mr. Bush would need engineers to perfect one and Congress to pay for it. Neither group has obliged, and Mr. Putin is not the obstacle.

Reduction of nuclear overkill will be welcome. But the Cold War stalemate known as mutually assured destruction (MAD) remains in place supporting stability. And while Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush anticipate more amity after this three-day couples summit, the fate of the ABM treaty is postponed, not decided.

Mr. Putin is repositioning Russia in world politics and convincing his political establishment - with more than its share of old fogeys from the Soviet era - that he is enhancing Russian national security.

The United States and Russia have identified areas of mutual interest. But Mr. Putin is not destined to become Mr. Bush's partner in the sense that Britain's Tony Blair is.

The new relationship is a wholesome development, but a little less than meets the eye.

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