BUSH, Putin pledge to talks on nuclear cuts in tandem with missile defense

Monday, July 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GENOA, Italy (AP) _ Despite a surprise agreement for new arms control talks, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin still must bridge their deep divide over U.S. missile defense plans and decades of mistrust over nuclear negotiations.

In a welcome step toward mending the troubled U.S.-Russian relationship, the leaders announced Sunday after their second-ever meeting that they would link talks on shrinking nuclear stockpiles to ones on defensive weapons. Questions lingered, however, about how they would take shape, and differences between the two sides remained acute.

Putin told top Cabinet officials Monday that he and Bush made significant progress toward new arms talks. But he also assured that they both ``confirmed our adherence'' to a longstanding arms control treaty, according to the Kremlin press service.

Separately, both Bush and Putin have urged further cuts in their nations' huge nuclear arsenals. Sunday was the first time they agreed to tandem talks on offensive and defensive weapons.

``The two go hand-in-hand in order to set up a new strategic framework for peace,'' an upbeat Bush said at their joint press conference in Genoa. ``I believe that we will come up with an accord.''

The announcement followed a 90-minute meeting that Bush called ``open and optimistic.'' Putin was more reserved.

``We're not ready at this time to talk about threshold limits or the numbers themselves. But a joint striving exists,'' the Russian president said. ``The main thing for us is to maintain a system of balance.''

A key question is whether the announcement means Putin is softening his opposition to Bush's missile shield dreams. Another is how he will respond if an agreement is not reached before the United States begins anti-missile tests barred under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty _ tests the Pentagon says are just months away.

Despite his repeated calls for cutting nuclear stockpiles that Russian cannot afford, Putin has warned that Russia would tear up existing arms control agreements if the United States dumps the ABM treaty. He has also suggested Moscow could respond by putting multiple warheads on existing single-warhead nuclear missiles.

On Sunday, Putin played down that threat, saying that if the upcoming talks go well, ``we might not ever need to look at that option.''

Bush appears to be trying to win Russian acceptance of the missile defense plan without getting drawn into the Cold War-style tangle of arms negotiations.

The United States has about 7,000 strategic nuclear weapons. Under the START II agreement with Russia, that number will fall to between 3,000 and 3,500. In 1997, Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed in principle that a follow-on treaty should drop the numbers to between 2,000 and 2,500. Putin has suggested that 1,500 warheads each _ or even fewer _ would be adequate.

Some U.S. military officials caution against going below 2,500. But the Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, hailed Sunday's agreement.

``I think it shows once again that Putin and the Russians are willing to talk about the future and move beyond the past,'' he said on CBS' ``Face the Nation.''

Russian military analysts say Putin wants to avoid full-scale negotiations. They increasingly predict that the Kremlin will never formally accept the U.S. missile defense plans but will limit its response to diplomatic protests.

``The Russian position is that we should maneuver through sophisticated diplomatic positions to where the United States will be forced to abrogate the treaty, and we will expose the United States as a crude aggressor,'' said Moscow defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

``And then Russia will do nothing because the Kremlin knows there's no military threat coming from the American missile defense, at least for the next 20 years.''

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, will travel to Moscow this week to begin developing a framework for discussions.

The two presidents also announced a plan to revitalize U.S. trade and investment in Russia. The Bush administration has said it wants to emphasize investment and business cooperation with Russia rather than the large aid packages at the center of U.S.-Russian policy in the 1990s.

The leaders also discussed the Kyoto global warming pact, which Bush opposes but Putin backs.