A New Arms Game

Vladimir Belous should be very disappointed. The former general, a veteran of the Soviet Union's elite nuclear-strike forces, has spent the better part of his retirement working to discredit U.S. plans for missile defense. At the behest of the Kremlin, Belous has treated foreign diplomats in Moscow to countless presentations about its perils. The small but energetic general used to explain in frightening detail why the White House push for a revised Star Wars system would lead to a "new arms race."

But something strange happened when the dreaded moment of truth finally arrived. In one stroke last week, President George W. Bush called an end to a 30-year era of arms-control treaties. Bush made good on a campaign promise and announced that the United States would withdraw from the antiballistic-missile treaty in six months--in order to test missile defense systems that are now prohibited. It was the first time any country had unilaterally abrogated an arms agreement since World War II. Yet Bush came away unscathed politically from what was once a hot-button issue--with the war on terror, "who's going to complain?" asked a former Clinton official--and even Belous was forced to search for a positive spin. "This is the best thing that could have happened," he said. Although he wasn't happy that Washington had withdrawn from the treaty, Belous believes that Russia will now win political points for seeming like a peacemaker.

How do we explain the striking sense of calm that permeated the Russian power elite last week? Russian weakness is a good place to start. There was nothing Moscow could have done to prevent Washington from pulling out of the 1972 treaty. Putin's generals have talked about mounting multiple warheads on existing missiles, perhaps to scare the United States into being more cooperative. But most Russian missiles already are "MIRVed," and Moscow simply doesn't have the money to retrofit its already rusty arsenal. On the other hand, the recent White House proposals for sharp cuts in offensive arms--what one Bush official described hopefully as "a deal in a sense" in exchange for Moscow's passivity on ABM--could save the Kremlin loads of desperately needed cash.

The money could be used by Moscow to gear up for more proximate threats. These include the militant Islamic rebellion in Chechnya and the internal weaknesses of a dilapidated economy. In return for Moscow's mild-mannered response on missile defense, Washington might lead a campaign to provide Russia with debt relief, and could also aid its bid to join the World Trade Organization. It could even invite wider Russian participation in NATO decision making. "Putin is after something bigger [than the ABM treaty]," says a senior U.S. administration official. "He's after a serious strategic relationship with the U.S."

Yet scrapping the treaty creates political problems for Bush elsewhere--especially across the Pacific. China's deterrent of a mere 20 or so ICBMs is potentially threatened by a viable missile defense system. And China, unlike Russia, could mount a missile-building drive that might provoke a new arms race with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. To forestall just that, Bush called Chinese President Jiang Zemin last week, and the two agreed to schedule high-level talks soon.

The political wrangling, in any case, misses a larger question: does missile defense make sense for the United States? Many analysts think not. By conservative estimates, a limited missile shield will cost untold tens of billions of dollars. Yet the shield is still a theoretical abstraction; the latest test of a booster rocket failed last week. And it's becoming increasingly clear to some analysts, at least, that the big danger to America these days is not missiles, which have a return address--it's suitcase bombs and biological agents. And even while Bush hints at rewarding Russia on the ABM issue, Moscow still refuses to cooperate fully on nonproliferation matters. The danger for Bush is that with his attention--and budgetary dollars--focused on the skies above, the real threat to Americans could arrive by another means.