Published on Thursday, May 16, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Bush Wins the Final Battle for Star Wars
Kremlin abandons bitter opposition; Construction starts in Alaska within weeks
by Ian Traynor in Moscow and Julian Borger in Washington
The Bush administration is poised for a major political breakthrough in gaining international acceptance of its controversial star wars plans.
After a year of bitter Russian opposition to a scheme which Moscow warned could jeopardize global nuclear stability and spark a new arms race, the Kremlin has accepted a White House offer to cooperate on the national missile defense project (NMD).
The Pentagon is to start construction work on NMD in Alaska within weeks following a frenzy of intense diplomacy that this week has resulted in the announcement of a major arms control treaty with Russia and a new deal between NATO and Russia that allows Moscow inside the alliance's councils for the first time.
The Americans are capitalizing on the new spirit of partnership to sweep away opposition to the missile shield scheme and co-opt the world's second nuclear power.
With Washington and Moscow apparently bent on forging a new partnership, Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin have agreed to set up a joint committee on NMD, a senior Russian official revealed yesterday, to head off Russian opposition.
The agreement is in turn expected to undermine resistance to the project in western Europe.
The initiative will be unveiled next week when Mr Bush visits Russia for the first time for a summit with Mr Putin.
The key declaration to be issued by the summit, finalized this week by Russian and US negotiators, will redefine relations between the two countries and includes US promises to cooperate with Russia on missile defense, the Russian official said.
The new committee would be consultative and would be headed by the defense and foreign affairs chiefs of both countries.
Despite fierce Russian opposition to the Pentagon's missile defense plans, next week's summit looks likely to result in the White House co-opting Mr Putin behind NMD.
The muting of opposition in western Europe to the project was also evident at the two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers which ended in Reykjavik last night.
A NATO communiqué issued at the end of the meeting said that terrorism and the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons were the key dangers facing the alliance after September 11.
"The role that missile defense could play is being actively considered as we continue our consultations with the US on this issue."
Despite warnings from the Kremlin as recently as six months ago that NMD could spark a new arms race, the two presidents next week will also sign a treaty scrapping thousands of nuclear warheads over the next decade. Republicans in the US are citing that as proof that star wars need not result in a new arms race.
The Russians pushed for an explicit link in the arms cuts treaty with missile defense, but the Americans balked. The soothing words on the missile shield will come, however, in the accompanying document, while the joint committee will draw Russia further into the star wars project.
For much of last year Washington sought to cajole Moscow into jointly abandoning the 1972 anti-ballistic missiles treaty - which bans the missile shield - but Mr Putin refused to budge, forcing the US in December to abrogate unilaterally the treaty widely seen as the foundation of nuclear arms stability.
More in sorrow than in anger, Mr Putin described the US move as a mistake.
The six-month notice period expires a couple of weeks after the Bush-Putin summit and the Americans are to start work immediately on building missile silos at the Fort Greely military base in Alaska.
Mr Bush served notice of US withdrawal from the ABM treaty on December 13, in order to allow the Pentagon to pursue testing of NMD. Fort Greely is intended as a test site for land-based interceptors, which are the central element of the plan.
Last year, in a tactical ploy to rally opposition to the US plans, the Russians offered to cooperate with the Europeans in developing smaller-scale and less ambitious "theater missile defense". No one took the proposals seriously. But the notion could now be revived.
The Russians now hope to win a few contracts from the Americans in the multibillion dollar scheme. Mark Bromley, of the British American Security Information Council, said that Russian military industries had been lobbying for the past year and a half for Moscow to get involved in missile defense cooperation with the US, in the hope of winning American contracts and investment.
Official Russian comment on the project has undergone an abrupt change.
A senior Russian military source told the Interfax news agency yesterday: "During bilateral talks the US side emphasized that the future anti-ballistic missile system will be of a limited nature and will not pose a threat to either Russia's strategic forces or the global strategic balance."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002