A Boon For Russia?

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Russia may actually benefit from America's decision to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic missile treaty despite years of protests about abandoning the pact, defense analysts say.

The analysts argue that the U.S. move frees Russia from constraints under other nuclear arms control agreements and could bolster its defense capability rather than erode it.

President Vladimir Putin's low-key response Thursday to President Bush's announcement to leave the pact in six months reflects the sentiment that Russia may ultimately benefit. Putin said the U.S. move was a "mistake," but not a threat to Russia.

"It would have been in U.S. interests to preserve the ABM," said Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank. "By renouncing it, the United States gives Russia an opportunity to take back some of its earlier concessions."

Putin said earlier this year that U.S. withdrawal from the pact would shatter other arms control agreements and warned that Russia may respond by fitting multiple nuclear warheads onto its single-warhead missiles.

Although Putin did not repeat these statements Thursday, some observers say Russia could later announce itself free from earlier obligations.

"Russia may now withdraw from the START II treaty, freeing itself from the ban on the deployment of missiles with multiple warheads," said Ret. Lt. Gen. Vasily Lata, the former deputy chief of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces. "It would serve Russia's security interests well."

When the Russian parliament ratified the START II arms control treaty in April 2000, it made it conditional on the preservation of the ABM treaty, which prohibits building a national missile defense.

START II, signed in 1993, required both countries to halve the number of their strategic nuclear weapons from the 6,000 warheads each allowed under START I.

Abandoning START II would allow Russia to fit three nuclear warheads to each of its new, single-warhead Topol-M missiles, said Sergei Rogov, head of the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute.

"Fitting multiple warheads to missiles would be quite efficient in both an economic and a military sense," Rogov said.

Land-based nuclear missiles make up the core of the Russian strategic forces. With START II in effect, Moscow would have had to deploy a large number of new Topol-M missiles or build nuclear submarines equipped with ballistic missiles to match U.S. arsenals. The cash-strapped government can't afford either option.

Russia has pushed for radical bilateral cuts in nuclear weapons to avoid a losing competition to match U.S. arsenals.

In the new, warmer relationship with Moscow, Bush pledged last month to cut U.S. arsenals by two-thirds to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads.

On Thursday, Putin matched Bush's pledge with his own proposal to cut warheads to between 1,500 and 2,200, but again pushed for the cuts to be written down in a formal treaty - somethig Bush has opposed.

Most analysts predict that while Russia won't make any sudden moves that might hurt the new friendship with the United States, it will defend its security interests.

"Without officially renouncing the arms control treaties, Russia may say that it no longer considers itself bound by some of their provisions," Rogov said.

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