NATO on His Mind, Putin Visits Blair

About a week after the United States notified Russia it was scrapping the ABM Treaty, President Vladimir Putin is winging his way to Britain for a visit with the man who may be his biggest ally for drawing Moscow closer to NATO, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Putin, accompanied by his wife, Lyudmila, touches down in London for a two-day visit Friday that is being billed as mostly private. But during the official segment of the trip, Putin will meet with Blair for discussions that are expected to focus on closer Russia-NATO ties and the fight against terrorism.

The meeting could be part of a bid by Russia to get concessions from the West in return for biting the bullet over the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. U.S. President George W. Bush told Putin on Dec. 13 that he will withdraw from the treaty to build a national missile defense shield.

"Putin is hoping that his flexibility will allow him to get other important things, like a closer relationship with NATO," said Fiona Hill, fellow at the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Putin has repeatedly said in recent weeks that Russia is ready to move as close to NATO as the alliance allows.

And Blair is certainly the man to talk to about NATO. The British prime minister sent a letter to Putin in October proposing that Russia be treated as an equal with the 19 NATO member states in talks about certain issues. Other NATO members have given the idea a lukewarm reception, but talks have begun to iron out a new type of relationship.

Putin's reaction to Bush's announcement about scrapping the ABM Treaty took some by surprise. Throughout much of the year, Moscow had issued warnings about what it would do if the treaty was abandoned. Among them was a threat to pull out of other international treaties.

After the announcement, however, Putin took the line that the treaty wasn't that important anyway.

"As is well known, Russia and the United States, unlike other nuclear powers, have for a long time possessed an effective means to overcome missile defenses," Putin said in televised remarks late last week. "Therefore, I fully believe that the decision taken by the president of the United States does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation."

Then, instead of dwelling on the U.S. decision, Putin appeared to quickly shift his focus to what Russia could accomplish with NATO.

In an interview this week with the Financial Times, Putin stressed that Russia's relationship with NATO was more important than missile defense.

"If relations between Russia and the West, Russia and NATO and Russia and the U.S. continue to develop in the spirit of partnership and even of alliance, then no harm will be done," he said.

Earlier this month, NATO ministers agreed to aim for a NATO-Russia council that could identify opportunities for consultation, cooperation, joint decisions and joint actions by their next meeting in Iceland in May.

The security benefits of such an alliance clearly surpass those of the ABM Treaty and help explain why Russia is not bitterly complaining about the U.S. withdrawal.

"It's difficult to see how Russia could sit at the NATO table and argue with the most important member over the most important issue, missile defense," said Christopher Langton, a research fellow for Russia and the CIS at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

For now, it looks like Russia and the United States are working together to get what they each want -- Bush with no ABM Treaty and Putin with closer ties with NATO, experts said.

However, should those areas of cooperation crumble, previous plans for retaliation could surface, they said. Washington has already backed away from the support it initially gave the Blair plan.

"If the U.S.-Russian relationship becomes adversarial in one area, like Central Asia or NATO, then it could affect the way Russia deals with the U.S. withdrawal from ABM," Langton said. "Everything is wrapped up in one. You can't have an adversarial relationship on the one hand and a friendly one on the other when you're talking about security."

For the time being, however, Putin and Bush are concentrating on trimming their respective strategic arsenals -- now standing at 6,000 to 7,000 warheads each -- to 1,500 to 2,200.

Such cuts are much more important to Russia than the ABM Treaty, experts said. The country cannot afford to sustain its current levels of nuclear arms.

Moreover, even with lowered numbers of arsenals, Russia would be able to overcome American missile defenses.

On Monday, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agreed to move ahead with fresh arms talks in the new year.

Whether Russia receives a treaty on the cuts as it is demanding depends on whether advocates in the U.S. State Department are able to overcome opposition from the Pentagon.

If no treaty is reached, Russia may sidestep the START II treaty in order to free itself from a ban on the deployment of missiles with multiple nuclear warheads, experts said.

Doing so could be practical for economic reasons. If the Russian armed forces placed three warheads on its current missiles, they would avoid the costly task of having to buy more.

Such a sidestep could also serve political purposes, said Alexander Savelyev, head of the strategic studies department at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

"Equipping missiles with three warheads can solve Putin's problem of pressure from the right wing and preserve Russia's status as a great military power," Savelyev said.