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Eyeballing Putin

President Bush emerged from his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month to let the world know that he had looked into Putin's eyes, seen his soul and judged him to be a trustworthy negotiating partner. Their get-together this weekend after the G-8 summit in Genoa will be less chummy, if only because Bush is still recovering from the ridicule directed his way for the romance-novel tone of his first post-Putin press conference. Even if Putin's eyes are limpid pools of light, Bush won't say so in public again.

But there are more substantial reasons the second Bush-Putin session may not be as friendly as the first. Several events over the past month have raised tensions between the United States and Russia.

The Bush administration has been more explicit about its accelerated timetable for missile-defense research and development that will violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Putin signed a new "friendship and cooperation" pact with China, perceived as a pointed response to U.S. strategic ambitions. He also issued a warning about the consequences of an eastern expansion of NATO that excludes Russia, and he talked in an almost offhand way of the possibility of redeploying multiple-warhead missiles to counteract U.S. missile-defense development. Bush and Putin still seem to have a friendly working relationship, but the pace of events since their last meeting will require the two leaders to dispense with the early pleasantries this weekend and start communicating with specificity and candor about the issues that divide them, beginning with nuclear deterrence.

After their June meeting, Putin offered a surprisingly mild reaction to President Bush's plans for missile defense. He acknowledged that Russia's nuclear arsenal would not be immediately affected by U.S. deployment of a limited system intended to defend against terrorists and rogue states, and he offered the possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation on defensive technology within the context of the ABM treaty. Since then, however, the Bush administration has moved more aggressively toward development of a system that would abrogate ABM and risk a provocative Russian response. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz offered the clearest blueprint of the administration's missile defense plans earlier this month when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the program will "inevitably bump up against" the ABM treaty "in months," rather than years. The Pentagon could be in violation of the longstanding treaty by next spring, when it intends to begin construction of testing facilities in Alaska.

Such a rush to move beyond ABM, with or without Russia's acquiescence, is irrational. ABM, along with the companion treaties limiting each side's offensive nuclear weapons, has maintained a stable peace for decades. Before jettisoning that arms-control structure, the White House should be certain that it is replacing it with a system that ensures even greater security for the United States and our allies. For now, the Pentagon can't be certain if, much less when, it will be possible to develop a missile-defense system that is reliable, affordable and compatible with our broader security interests.

The Pentagon already has begun tempering its claims of success for last weekend's missile defense test. At best, the test boosted the morale of Pentagon officials embarrassed by previous failures and revelations of rigged results. However, moving from such rudimentary tests to the development of a functioning system is still, at best, many years away. In the meantime, Washington officials should be discussing among themselves _ and with other governments, including our NATO allies, Russia and China _ how a missile defense system might fit within a redefined framework of mutual security. Otherwise, the unilateral rush to missile defense risks returning the world to the days of nuclear brinkmanship, when American and Russian leaders looked into each other's eyes only to see who might blink first.