Putin Plays His Hand

When Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Okinawa last week for the G8 summit, he was no doubt feeling good about himself. And why not? Eager to bolster Moscow's stature in East Asia, he'd already made successful stopovers in China and North Korea to cement opposition to a U.S. plan to develop an antiballistic missile shield known as national missile defense, or NMD. But he also brought Washington a surprise gift. At a poolside meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton last Friday, Putin outlined a North Korean proposal, delivered to him personally by Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, to scrap its long-range missile program in exchange for international help launching satellites "once or twice a year," according to a senior Clinton aide. "Putin had a lot to say," the aide told NEWSWEEK. "I would describe [the briefing] as quite interesting and useful."

The industrial world's leaders agreed. During the summit's first meeting, a Friday working dinner on security and disarmament, Putin started a discussion on strategies for encouraging reform in North Korea. During the meal, the United States and Russia issued a potentially far-reaching joint statement, entitled Cooperation on Strategic Stability, pledging that both nations would trim their nuclear arsenals and "expand their cooperation in the area of theater missile defense." The accord offered few specifics, and there was an obvious element of showboat diplomacy in Putin's gambit. Still, some analysts were encouraged. "Putin is raising constructive issues," said Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul. And exerting Russian influence to reduce tensions at Northeast Asia's most dangerous flash point.

Putin is deftly playing a weak hand. He opposes Clinton's proposed NMD shield because Moscow can't afford to match American R&D. But instead of only forging an anti-NMD alliance with China, Putin also has urged North Korea to shed its rogue-state status by halting its missile program--eliminating Washington's main justification for pressing ahead with NMD. "We would like to see North Korea out of the missile business," says another Clinton administration official. "If there's a way we can do that, then good."

In fact, prospects for peace in Korea have never looked brighter. For starters, the region's great powers--the United States, China, Russia and Japan--are aligned in their eagerness to nudge Pyongyang along a path toward moderation. And following the watershed North-South summit in June, there are ambitious Korean plans to promote cross-border trade, travel and dialogue. Kim Jong Il's offer to Putin "confirms what the North has been hinting at: that development, production and testing of missiles is negotiable," says U.S. arms-control expert Leon Sigal.

That the proposal was floated in Okinawa is not insignificant. The tiny island--where about 27,000 U.S. troops are stationed as a contingency for renewed warfare on the Korea Peninsula--would likely be the first place to feel the effects of rapprochement. Faced with protests on the island last week, Clinton pledged to reduce the impact of U.S. bases.

But despite the good vibes, the United States and Russia still have deep differences. Clinton may be happy to let Putin take the limelight on Korean disarmament, but that doesn't mean that he's prepared to ditch the missile-defense idea. For one thing, the technology offers the promise of neutralizing Russia's missile capabilities. Explicit cooperation between the two sides on missile defense may still be a long way off. What's more, China may balk if Russia tries to forge an NMD deal with the United States. Not long ago, Putin offered to jointly deploy a missile-defense system with NATO to defend Europe. Such talk alarms Beijing. "The Chinese are worried that Russia is going to sell them out," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. Nobody knows what Putin's underlying motives are. But at the least he seems determined to become a player on Asia's diplomatic stage.

Putin Plays His Hand | News