Weapons pact for Bush, Putin called surprise
GENOA, Italy (AP) – Seeking a post-Cold War formula for arms control, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged Sunday to pursue deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals and link the offensive weapons talks to tougher negotiations over Bush’s missile defense plans.
Their differences still deep, both leaders hailed the surprise announcement in this medieval Mediterranean port city as a step toward forging a stronger U.S.-Russian relationship.
Bush has ambitious but untested plans for a defense system that could protect the United States and its allies from missiles launched by Iraq, North Korea or other rogue states. He has sought to link offensive and defense weapons strategies since early in his presidential campaign.
”The two go hand-in-hand in order to set up a new strategic framework for peace,” Bush said at a news conference following their second one-on-one meeting. ”I believe that we will come up with an accord.”
Soon after he became president, Bush directed the Pentagon to consider further cuts in nuclear weapons, while Putin has suggested reductions to 1,500 warheads each – about one-fifth of the current U.S. stockpile.
Though skeptical of Bush’s missile shield dreams, the Russian president said nuclear cuts would make the world a safer place. ”There has to be absolutely no doubt that this is going to happen,” Putin said.
But there is still significant doubt about how Putin will respond if an agreement is not reached before the United States begins anti-missile tests prohibited by the 29-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Pentagon says those tests are just months away and will proceed over Russia’s objections.
In addition, Bush and Putin did not agree on the size of nuclear cuts, a timetable or what weapons would be involved. And there was no evidence that Bush made headway in convincing Putin that a U.S. missile defense system is not a strategic threat to Russia.
”The differences in approach on a couple of topics is still there,” Putin said.
Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress praised Bush’s action.
”This implies, at least to me, … this administration will not break out of the ABM Treaty in the meantime. And I think that’s very good news,” said Sen. Joseph Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN’s ”Late Edition.”
With Bush at his side, Putin pointedly declined to repeat his long-standing position that scuttling the ABM would trigger an arms race. Instead, the Russian suggested the issue might become moot.
”If, as we understood from each other today, we are ready to look at the issue of offensive and defensive systems together as a set, we might not ever need to look at that option,” he said.
U.S. officials traveling with Bush said they believe Putin was referring to the possibility that the United States and Russia could come to terms on a new defense agreement before Bush has to violate or scuttle the ABM treaty to proceed with his anti-missile tests.
Though Bush has long supported linking offensive and defensive strategy talks, it was Putin’s idea to announce their intentions Sunday. Bush advisers scurried to type and copy a three-sentence joint statement announcing the deal, they said.
Putin stands to gain from the agreement. He has looked for ways to reduce the immense cost of stockpiling thousands of Cold War weapons and, perhaps, could use the arms cuts to shelter him from political fallout if Bush carries out his missile shield plans despite Russian objections.
Bush, for his part, is hoping to win Russian acceptance of his anti-missile ambitions, which have sharply divided U.S. allies. The Pentagon hopes to have a rudimentary defense against missiles up as soon as 2004.
Putin and Bush met after the close of a three-day summit of the world’s wealthiest nations and Russia. The leaders issued a communique that made no mention of missile defense, though it was discussed.
The United States has about 7,000 strategic nuclear weapons, Russia about 6,000. Under the START II agreement with Russia, that number will fall to between 3,000 and 3,500. In 1997, President Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin agreed in principle that a START III treaty should cut numbers to 2,000 to 2,500.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is flying to Russia this week to work out a timetable for talks between the nation’s defense and foreign ministers.
The Bush-Putin news conference was conducted in a 16th century palace, in an ornate room so stuffy and hot that Bush pulled at his sport coat and wiped beads of sweat from his upper lip.
The two leaders are scheduled to meet twice more this year, at a conference in Shanghai, China, and at Bush’s Texas ranch in the fall.
They met for the first time last month in Slovenia.
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