Russia's longstanding and vociferous opposition to the American desire to modify the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and permit deployment of a small-scale national missile defense system has led many to conclude such a deal is not possible. That conclusion is wrong.
A deal is possible, but only if the White House shows much greater flexibility on the timing and extent of the offensive nuclear force reductions that must accompany any defensive deployments.
The national missile defense system the United States proposes to build is designed to defend against missile threats from rogue states, not to blunt a Russian missile attack. Nonetheless, Moscow understandably worries Washington might be seeking to build defenses that would threaten its strategic deterrent.
It is very much in America's interest to allay Russia's concerns. Otherwise, Russia will take steps, such as putting its forces on higher alert, that will leave the United States less secure.
As a result, any attempt to modify the ABM treaty must recognize a core Russian concern that the treaty continues to ban strategically significant missile defenses.
Specifically, treaty changes must permit deployment of 100 fixed, ground-based interceptors at no more than two sites, rather than one single site currently allowed, and maintaining the restriction on using only ground-based rather than space-based radar.
The two countries must reach an understanding that this deployment will allow the defense of national territory against a rogue state threat, something the treaty explicitly bans.
To persuade Russia to agree to these changes in the ABM treaty, Washington should propose making deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons. Rather than waiting for the Russian Duma to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II, the United States should offer to begin immediate negotiations on a START III agreement that reduces each country's arsenal to 1,000 warheads.
Washington also should promptly and unilaterally reduce its nuclear arms to START II levels of 3,500 warheads and remove from alert status all the weapons it would destroy under a START III agreement.
Washington also should move to invigorate U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear and defense issues. It should accept Moscow's offer to form a joint commission to examine the threats posed by rogue states to both countries - not as an alternative, but to complement national missile defense.
The United States should offer to expand its current programs for assisting Russia with its early warning system. It should make permanent the temporary joint missile warning center set up at the North American Aerospace Defense Command in late 1999 to allay fears that a Year 2000 glitch might prompt an accidental nuclear launch.
And the United States could expand its offer to assist Russia in completing two large early warning radars in the south and west to include financial and other assistance to help rebuild Russia's entire early warning network, which is in serious and dangerous disarray.
Finally, the United States should consider sharing its antimissile technology with Russia, to demonstrate that it seeks no advantage for itself.
A strategy that combines an offer to make deep cuts with unilateral U.S. steps to implement START II and a reinvigorated cooperation with Russia on nuclear and defense issues would send an unmistakable signal to Moscow that the United States does not seek to undercut its nuclear deterrent posture by deploying a national missile defense.
Equally important, each of these steps would serve America's interests. This is particularly true of deep cuts, which would not harm the American nuclear deterrent. With the Soviet Union dead and no similar successor state in sight, 1,000 nuclear warheads are more than sufficient to deter any country from launching a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.
Would Russia agree to such a deal? Yes. Not only would this deal reduce both sides' nuclear forces to a level Russia can afford, but Moscow is unlikely to get a better deal from the next U.S. president. Indeed, Gov. George Bush, a leading candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination, already has indicated he would proceed with a large national missile defense deployment come what may, and his chief foreign policy adviser has dismissed the ABM treaty as a relic of the Cold War.
A Russian president faced with the choice of modifying the ABM treaty or watching the United States abrogate it would choose the former so long as a deal is still on the table.