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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

Putin's secret weapon makes Rice's task easier

Ancient Chinese sages believed that time is not linear but circular. There is also an ancient Chinese curse that says, 'May he live in interesting times.'

It appeared last week that the United States and Russia have been existing according to these two principles for the past 40-plus years. A sudden announcement by Russian President Putin of the existence of a secret, all-powerful nuclear missile Russia has developed brought to mind the trials and tribulations of the Cuban Missile Crisis that pushed the two countries to the brink of a nuclear war 42 years ago.

In 1962, the Soviets set up nuclear missiles in Cuba, acquiring a capability to strike the southeastern United States. President John Kennedy was instrumental in defusing the crisis when tragedy seemed imminent. "We were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked," Secretary of State Dean Rusk said of the ordeal when it was over.

But this time around it was more like a parody on the tragic events of the past, both as far as the events and the people involved in them are concerned.

"We have not only tested the latest nuclear missile system," Mr. Putin said Wednesday to a conference of Russia's top brass in Moscow (translation is mine), "I am sure that it will become operational within the next few years. Moreover, these will be things that other nuclear powers do not have and are unlikely to have in the future."

It is no secret to Russia watchers that what he was referring to was an "asymmetric response," a missile system capable of overwhelming any defense.

The Russians vowed to come up with such a weapon when the United States a couple of years ago unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in pursuit of President Bush's plan to build a missile-defense shield purportedly as a defense against rogue states and terrorists.

The Russians insisted such a missile-defense system would shift the nuclear balance to the U.S. advantage.

The trick is that what appears to be a new crisis in U.S.-Russian relations was a godsend for the Bush administration, notably National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who last week was nominated as the next secretary of state.

A Russian specialist by training, Ms. Rice is traditionally branded by the Russian media as an anti-Russian hawk. So, many U.S. experts in Russia are expecting major changes because of her nomination.

They are wrong. As far as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned, she is irrelevant in that all she will do is defend the policies of the Bush-Rumsfeld-Cheney team. But thanks to Mr. Putin's announcement, her task is now easier.

Mr. Bush has had problems selling the American public on the notion that the missile shield fits squarely in the war on terror, with terrorism being an obvious threat. Now, with Russia wielding a nuclear club, this shield - which is in the need of multibillion-dollar investments - is definitely out of hot water.

"This is not something that we look at as new," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, according to wire services. "We are very well aware of their long-standing modernization efforts for their military . We are allies now in the global war on terrorism."

He went on to reassure the public.

"We have a very different relationship than we did in the Cold War," he said. "The fact that we do have a good relationship enables us to speak very directly to our Russian friends."

That may be true as long as the United States and Russia see eye to eye on crucial issues. But nothing is forever, as the Chinese sages would agree.



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