Putin's 'Star Wars' Lite: Could It Fly? ; His Call for US-Russian Collaboration on Missile Defense Is More Politics Than Reality

Article excerpt

Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal to build a joint antimissile defense system with NATO and Europe has some intriguing aspects - but it's likely more opening move than final geopolitical gambit, say US arms-control experts.

If nothing else, the recent summit between Russia and the US showed that Russia's new leader is in no hurry to engage the Clinton administration in missile defense talks. Mr. Putin may want to wait and see what the next US president has to offer.

And while Putin agreed that nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea and other rogue states could be a danger to the world in the future, there was no meeting of the minds in Moscow on when that future might arrive.

"That is certainly part of what we've been hearing from them - they feel that the threat is exaggerated," said a senior administration official at a briefing for reporters after the summit's conclusion.

Putin is already taking his defense plan and promoting it on the road. He pressed the issue during a visit to Italy earlier this week, claiming that his alternate system would guard against a rogue state nuclear attack while staying within the current bounds of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM).

Not that he provided details of exactly what that alternate system might be. So far, the Russian leader has only discussed a general approach.

A lid over rogue nations

The idea - first floated by Putin in a broadcast interview prior to the summit - would be for Russia, Europe, and the US to jointly develop interceptor rockets that would be based near potentially dangerous countries such as North Korea or Iraq. These defenses would then shoot down attacking nuclear missiles in the boost phase, shortly after launch.

The system's limited ability wouldn't break the ABM pact, according to Putin.

The US, by contrast, wants to renegotiate the ABM Treaty to allow construction of a national missile defense on US soil. Interceptor rockets would shoot down nuclear warheads as they coasted through space, or descended through the atmosphere.

The Russian system would be analogous to placing a lid over rogue nations. The US approach would be to build an umbrella over itself.

US officials were careful not to reject Russia's ideas out of hand.

There have been military-to-military talks about the possibility of cooperating on various kinds of missile defense, they noted. Some of the technology involved might be relevant to future systems.

This stuff takes time

But none of it could be ready in the next five years - after which time the US believes North Korea will be able to field a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. …