MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian politicians roundly condemned on
Washington's impending departure from the ABM treaty, but few
expected President Vladimir Putin to make a drama out of a crisis
from which he should emerge unscathed.
President Bush is expected to announce later on Thursday that
the United States is giving Russia six months notice of its intention
to leave the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bans the
sort of missile shield he wants to build.
Russia says the demise of the pact, the bedrock of three decades
of disarmament, could unravel more than 30 other accords, undermining
international security at a time when the Afghan crisis puts strategic
stability at a premium.
``It's worse than a crime, it's an error,'' said Vladimir Lukin,
a former Washington ambassador and leading light in the liberal
Yabloko party, quoting 18th century French statesman Charles de
``The U.S. used our enormous help to conduct the anti-terrorist
operation in Afghanistan, then announced its position on ABM.
It's a sign, and a bad sign at that.''
Vyacheslav Volodin, leader of the pro-government Fatherland-All
Russia faction in parliament branded Washington ''a superpower
that is trying to dictate its rules to the world.''
Some feared a new arms race in Asia and the Middle East, others
called on Moscow to quit the START-1 arms control accord.
In a worst case scenario, some analysts had suggested Russia
could strike back by withdrawing from a range of nuclear arms
control accords, boost its arsenal, slow or scrap cooperation
with America on threat reduction schemes and hinder U.S. efforts
to end proliferation of nuclear and missile know-how.
It could also sell countermeasures technology such as decoys
to China, which is acutely concerned over U.S. missile defense
because of the tiny size of Beijing's nuclear arsenal.
Putin made no mention of the Bush move during an address on Thursday
to church leaders. But senior aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said Russia
``will be calm'' and not allow relations to be derailed by a ``moment
Independent defense analyst Alexander Golts was more prosaic:
``It's more or less clear that Russia cannot respond in military
terms, and will not do so.
``What it means for Russia's military-political elite is that
we have lost the last opportunity to pretend we are equal with
the U.S. It has nothing to do with security or defense, it's all
With sky high ratings and no obvious challenger at home, Putin
is unlikely to encounter serious political problems, despite failing
to translate his staunch support for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan
into concrete benefits for Russia.
``I have been saying for a long time that domestically, internationally,
for Putin the best solution on the ABM treaty is for the Americans
to withdraw unilaterally,'' said Vyacheslav Nikonov, director
of Moscow's Fond Politika think-tank.
The move clears him of the military's accusations that he was
making concession on ABM to curry favor with Washington. It will
also allow Russia to bolster its creaking nuclear arsenal by retaining
multiple warhead missiles, which are due to be scrapped under
the START-2 arms reduction treaty.
``I think that goes automatically, since it is in the (Russian)
law on ratification of START-2 that it is valid only if the ABM
treaty remains intact,'' Nikonov said.
Putin freely admits U.S. plans for missile defense against attack
by ``rogue'' states will not affect Russia's vast nuclear deterrent
for decades, a point reiterated on Thursday by General Anatoly
Kvashnin, chief of Russia's defense staff.
However, the impetus for change may come from another direction.
China suspects Washington is seeking to neutralize Beijing's threat
to take Taiwan by force should the pro-American island, seen by
China as a rebel province, declare independence.
Nikonov said missile defense could spark Chinese rearmament,
triggering a chain reaction involving regional rival India, New
Delhi's rival Pakistan, Iran and Israel. ``We are entering a world
of no arms control whatsoever...but that is not Putin's fault,
the Americans bear full responsibility,'' he said.
Putin's likely sanguine reaction stems from a pragmatic assessment
that he cannot prevent Bush exercising the opt-out clause provided
for in the ABM treaty, he said.
``I don't think it will harm the (U.S.-Russian) relationship,
because the relationship is the personal relationship between
Putin and Bush.''