Putin deploys skill on arms control


THROUGHOUT the Cold War, a main objective of U.S. policy was to divide the two great Communist powers, the Soviet Union and China. The last thing that Washington should want now is to allow the old Communist alliance to be revived against this country's interests.

President Vladimir V. Putin made a splashy debut in big power politics by limning such a revival, traveling to the Group of Eight summit on Okinawa via Beijing and Pyongyang. It was skillfully done.

Mr. Putin agreed with China's President Jiang Zemin that the U.S. national missile defense project undermines strategic stability and provokes an arms race.

He represented North Korea's Kim Jong Il as wanting rockets only to explore space. He implied that North Korea would for a consideration drop the missile development that provides Washington's rationale for the national missile defense that Moscow and Beijing find so objectionable.

Thus equipped, Mr. Putin was ready to go one-on-one with President Clinton on Okinawa. Their joint statement afterward suggests that while they did not come to terms on U.S. national missile defense, they did not allow that disagreement to disrupt declared cooperation on arms control.

The statement reiterated support for the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and START II and III arms reduction. In discussing theater missile defense as possibly including other states, which would seem to mean Taiwan, they appeared to drive a wedge between Russia and China.

The probing of Mr. Putin's intentions must be carried on by Mr. Clinton's successor. North Korea's reported vague offer must be explored for precise meaning.

If Mr. Putin is manipulating Kim Jong Il to allow the administration to find that the need for national missile defense no longer exists, so much the better -- providing there is verification.

No matter what candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush say, a good possibility exists that the election winner will, within a year, cooperate with Mr. Putin on arms control, on a basis laid down by Mr. Putin and Mr. Clinton in Okinawa.

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