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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Putin softens stance on U.S. missile plans

There's definitely been a breakthrough.

The joint communiqu issued by President Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin as a result of their two-hour meeting at the G-8 summit in Genoa last week allows me to say so.

Russia is clearly warming up to U.S. national missile defense plans.

The United States says it needs the system to protect itself from rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea. In the past, Russia has argued that the system would uproot the existing system of international security.

The two presidents have committed to holding discussions on offense and defensive strategic weapon systems.

The statement is a departure from Mr. Bush's earlier calls for unilateral abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, and from Mr. Putin's unconditional refusal to amend the treaty that bars the two countries from developing missile systems.

So for now, Mr. Putin's publicized threat to outfit thousands of Russian nukes with multiple warheads as a response to U.S. tests of national missile defense system components is over.

The U.S. has maintained all along that Russia is not an enemy, so it was never an issue.

Besides, the U.S. missile defense plan - in the foreseeable future - can only be effective against very limited missile strikes.

The devil is in the different premises: The U.S. says Russia is not an enemy. And I agree with that.

Russia seems to be on the fence.

The troubled nation still does not trust the U.S., for a variety of reasons: NATO expansion to the east; the 1998 crisis of the U.S.-inspired market reforms in Russia; the U.S. military role in Yugoslavia, and high-profile spy and money-laundering scandals.

But there is a psychological issue of Russian pride as well.

This pride, to a large degree, includes nostalgia for the time when Russia was a major world player.

Russians still view their nuclear deterrent as the surest ticket to restoring their status as a superpower, though many, including Russian leaders, maintain Russia never lost that status.

Mr. Putin, who recently toured Europe, has achieved what he wanted and then some: Putting Russia back in the international public eye.

This - at least temporarily - quenched Russia's status hunger and allowed Mr. Putin to start backing up from the corner where he was about to put Russia without losing face.

He now seems to understand that thousands of Russia's nukes alone are no guarantee of security just like millions of tractors have been little help for Russia's notoriously inefficient agriculture.

And it's high time he did. Antagonizing the world's only true superpower makes little sense.

The question is whether Mr. Bush, who is committed to unlimited missile defense plans, allows Mr. Putin enough time to slowly come full circle on the issue without provoking China and, most importantly, Russian hard-liners who can otherwise threaten political stability in Russia.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade. Email him at msigov@theblade.com.



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