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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: 'Nice Visit' a Boost for Putin




At first glance, the Russian-U.S. summit in Moscow ended without any serious results. Yes, agreements were reached to destroy 68 tons of arms-grade plutonium and to create a joint center to monitor missile launches. But these agreements were fully prepared beforehand.


Presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin spent more than 10 hours together while their aides were also busy negotiating, but they did not manage to solve the main issue: finding a way to allow the United States to begin deploying a limited national missile defense while preserving the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that would insure NMD will not threaten the effectiveness of the Russian nuclear deterrent.


This summit resembles the meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland. Then, too, the main stumbling block was a U.S. desire to revise the ABM treaty to build a "Star Wars" missile defense. In Reykjavik, there was some progress on arms control, but in the end Reagan and Gorbachev failed to bridge the gap.


But an unprecedented thaw in Russian-U.S. relations occurred soon after Reykjavik, ending the Cold War and producing sweeping arms control agreements. Could this June Moscow summit also be a prologue to a new d?tente?


Russia under Putin seems to be ready to embrace the West. On Sunday, Russia agreed for the first time that it may be possible in principle to amend the ABM Treaty if the effectiveness of the Russian nuclear deterrent is guaranteed and the United States makes corresponding concessions in reducing the number of strategic ballistic missiles under a new START III treaty. Before the summit, Moscow's position had been that no changes in ABM were possible.


Of course, any agreement on ABM that will tacitly allow NMD can only come after strenuous negotiations. It is unclear now whether, if the Kremlin decides to compromise on ABM, it will swing a deal with Clinton or wait for his successor. What is clear is the overall price the Kremlin is expecting to get for playing ball on ABM.


Russia wants an agreement to put a limit of fewer than 2,000 (or even 1,500) on the number of strategic warheads under START III. Such an accord could allow Russia to spend less on making new intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia would also demand that strict limits are imposed on NMD capabilities. Such concessions could also help the Kremlin sell any future ABM deal to the Russian public and military.


On top of that, the United States and the West will unequivocally have to accept Putin as kosher - and everything he does, too. This may be the ugliest part of the bargain. But the statements Clinton made (or didn't make) Sunday were already very conciliatory: alleged Russian war crimes in Chechnya were not mentioned at all; harassment of the press and recent authoritarian tendencies in Putin's domestic policies were mentioned in the feeblest terms possible.


In the end, it boiled down to Clinton's saying that Putin guaranteed that freedom of the press and human rights in Chechnya would be secure. A reassuring statement indeed, especially if one considers the very real possibility that Putin himself may yet be implicated in war crimes or other human rights abuses.


"I know you don't like what I did in Kosovo, and you know I don't like what you are doing in Chechnya," said Clinton to State Duma deputies, obviously trying to placate Communists and nationalists and apparently implying: Who cares much about Kosovo and Chechnya anyway? Are these problems so serious they should damage our friendship?


Clinton's public pronouncements in Moscow are an extreme example of the appeasement of brutal repression. But the Duma deputies were not impressed. Clinton's speech, helped by a rigid translator, had the pitch of a Soviet functionary addressing the Central Committee. The deputies criticized some aspects of the lecture, but in general Clinton did rather well.


In any event, the Duma does not mean much in this country. All real decisions are made in the Kremlin, and Putin seemed very pleased Sunday: He received a serious public endorsement without conceding anything serious. In the Soviet period, the Communists were forced to let thousands of Jews emigrate or make some other conciliatory gesture on the eve of a U.S. presidential visit. In May 1995, when Clinton was in Moscow, a cease-fire was announced in Chechnya. This time, bombs were falling nonstop as Clinton told reporters: "We all just had a nice visit."


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.