Since the end of the Cold War, hopes for a nonnuclear world have run high. In the real world, however, moves toward disarmament have suffered one setback after another. Now there are disturbing signs of a relapse in the U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction talks. A chief stumbling block is the U.S. plan for National Missile Defense, a high-tech “space shield” designed to protect U.S. territory against long-range missile attacks.

Already the new Russian government of President Vladimir Putin, who took office earlier this month, is trying to check deployment of the system by the Clinton administration, which is in the final stages of the project’s evaluation. The NMD system would shoot down incoming ballistic missiles before they hit their targets by detecting them with high-accuracy radars and early warning satellites. It is essentially the same as the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

NMD raises two fundamental questions. One, why is it receiving so much attention, now that the Cold War has ended? And two, does it not run counter to existing arms-control treaties?

Regarding the first question, the Clinton administration says “rogue states” are rapidly acquiring ballistic-missile technology, and that NMD’s chief objective is intercepting Taepodong-2 missiles from North Korea, not ICBMs from Russia. According to a U.S. bipartisan committee that studied missile threats, North Korea is likely to develop, perhaps by 2003, a longer-range missile capable of reaching the continental United States.

While a missile attack by North Korea is hypothetical, NMD deployment will have a real impact on Russia’s arsenal of missiles and warheads. Many Republicans, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, are pushing for large-scale deployment, apparently with the strong backing of the military and the defense industry. As things stand, however, NMD is subject to restrictions under the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which was signed in 1972. Specifically, the treaty allows the U.S. and Russia to build just one ABM site each to intercept ICBMs.

But there is strong opinion in the Republican-controlled Senate that the ABM treaty should be scrapped so that the U.S. can construct a more extensive missile-defense system. On the other hand, pro-disarmament members of the Senate are calling for compliance with the existing ABM treaty and voicing opposition to NMD deployment.

U.S. President Bill Clinton reportedly holds an accommodating position somewhere between these two views. He has made it clear to Moscow that the U.S. will build an ABM base with 100 interceptors in Alaska — a step that is allowed under the current ABM Treaty — but that any further deployment, including construction of a second ABM site, depends on future talks to amend the treaty.

It should be noted, however, that there are strong voices in Russia calling for countermeasures against U.S. missile-defense plans. That partly explains why Mr. Clinton has postponed a decision, originally set for June, on whether to go ahead with NMD deployment — a decision that would take into account the the technical possibility of deployment, perceived missile threats and estimated costs, as well as possible effects on Russo-U.S. relations.

In early June, Mr. Clinton is to visit Russia for talks with Mr. Putin, prior to flight tests of NMD interceptor missiles scheduled for June 25. As things stand, it is likely that the decision on NMD deployment will be postponed until after November’s presidential election, in part because it is considered difficult to predict how the NMD initiative will affect the voting.

Another problem is that NMD could affect the effectiveness of the START II Treaty. In April, the Russian Parliament approved the treaty, which will reduce the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads held by the U.S. and Russia to between 3,000 and 3,500 each. But the legislature attached a key proviso that says Russia will withdraw from the START II Treaty if the U.S. violates or pulls out of the ABM Treaty. The U.S. Senate gave the green light to START II in 1996, but it has yet to approve the accompanying protocol. Because of this, implementation of the treaty is likely to be further delayed.

In addition, the beginning of START III talks, aimed at limiting nuclear-warhead arsenals to between 2,000 and 2,500 each, are also likely to be delayed. All this clouds the prospects for arms-control talks between the two nuclear giants. Without their real efforts toward disarmament, the nuclear nonproliferation regime, embodied in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, will suffer further setbacks.

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