Ever since he rejected Bill Clinton's proposals on missile defense during the Moscow summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved aggressively to push his own plan for defending against missile attacks. Rather than questioning Putin's motives, Washington should welcome his offer work with NATO countries on developing limited defenses. A cooperative approach to missile defense offers the United States the best chance to defend itself against the new missile threat without poisoning relations with Moscow and allies alike.
Putin's proposal, which he has sketched in only the broadest terms, calls for developing boost-phase defenses. Whereas the missile defense system the Clinton administration is proposing to deploy in Alaska seeks to destroy warheads in space, boost phase defenses attempt to destroy missiles immediately after launch. To do this, boost phases defenses cannot be deployed on U.S. soil but instead need to be located within several hundred miles of the launch site.
If boost-phase defenses can be made to work, they have three advantages over the Alaska system the administration favors. First, they are far less vulnerable to countermeasures because they would shoot down missiles before they reach space and can deploy decoys. Second, boost phase defenses would not threaten the Russian or Chinese nuclear deterrents. A boost-phase defense designed to protect against North Korean, Iran, or Iraqi missile launches simply would be too far away to shoot down Russian or Chinese missiles. Third, because they hit missiles immediately after launch regardless of where they are headed, boost-phase defenses would defend not just the United States but also Russia and Europe from attack. This would allay European fears that they will become the target if the United States succeeds in defending itself.
Washington's— and NATO's— initial reaction to Russia's sudden interest in missile defenses has been to dismiss it as a crude attempt to divide the United States and its European allies. This reaction is understandable. Putin's initiative bring to mind Soviet strategy toward Europe during the early 1980s when he was a KGB agent posted in East Berlin. Then, Moscow sought to divide the alliance by feeding European concerns about U.S. nuclear missile deployments in Germany. Now, Putin presents his ideas to a European audience, having failed to discuss them with Clinton in Moscow.
But questioning Putin's motives misses the point. What matters is that Moscow has now accepted the two main arguments the United States has been making for months— that the spread of long-range missiles threatens Western security and that active defenses must be part of the answer.
Washington should therefore seize the opening that Putin has provided and begin serious discussions on a joint effort to develop anti-missile systems. A cooperative approach to dealing with the new missile threat is very much in America's interest. One of the greatest concerns of proceeding unilaterally with missile defense deployment, as the U.S. currently contemplates, is the high likelihood that it will poison relations with Russia, China, and perhaps even our allies.
A serious dialogue with Russia on the new missile threat does not mean that the administration must abandon the possible deployment of its defense system in Alaska. Whether boost-phase defenses will substitute for or complement the Alaska system is a matter that can be settled down the road. The Pentagon has yet to demonstrate that its system can work under real-world conditions. And the missile threat itself may be changing, as electoral victories by reform candidates in Iran are followed by a historic summit meeting between North and South Korea in Pyongyang.
It may turn out that Putin is bluffing when he talks about cooperating with NATO on developing missile defenses. But it is better to call his bluff than to let him score easy diplomatic points at America's expense. And if Putin means what he says, Washington has nothing to lose— and much to gain— by working jointly with Moscow to protect the citizens of both countries from nuclear attack.