Big obstacles remain in U.S.-Russia arms pact

Posted: Monday, November 12, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The U.S.-Russia relationship has undergone seismic shifts since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits President Bush this week, the two leaders will have a historic opportunity to solidify some of those changes.

They also face big obstacles -- and ground still trembling underfoot.

Secretary of State Colin Powell likes to describe the dawning of a ''post-post Cold War'' era. But many reminders of the chilling half-century strategic standoff remain.

Most glaring is the combined total of roughly 13,000 long-range nuclear weapons the two sides maintain. Most are capable of being launched in a matter of minutes.

Differences remain, too, about the future role of NATO and U.S. plans for a national missile defense system.

Bush says the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is an ''outdated and dangerous'' relic of the Cold War. Putin says the treaty, which bars national missile defenses, is ''essential, effective and useful.''

Russia is not the Evil Empire anymore, as President Reagan once described it, and Moscow has become a valued U.S. ally in the war against terrorism.

Putin has softened his criticism of NATO expansion and hinted Saturday that a deal might be close on missile-defense that would allow continued U.S. testing while keeping the ABM treaty in place.

''We are also ready for a compromise. We should see what specific compromise proposals our American partners have,'' Putin said in an interview.

Although U.S. officials played down prospects for breakthrough agreements, Putin sounded more optimistic. One possible outcome was a deal to begin reducing warheads to perhaps about 2,000 for each side.

''Sometimes out of great tragedies, great opportunities arise,'' Powell told the House International Relations Committee. He noted that Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush after Sept. 11.

Putin also called off planned Russian war games and closed a spy post in Cuba and a naval base in Vietnam. He supports a U.S. military presence in former Soviet republics and backs military strikes in Afghanistan.

But Putin's support does not come without a cost.

U.S. officials already have tempered their criticism of the war in Chechnya, postponed missile defense tests that challenged the ABM treaty, and delayed a U.N. confrontation with Moscow over reshaping sanctions on Iraq.

The United States was expected to offer Moscow a variety of economic incentives, including helping to speed up its entry to the World Trade Organization and repeal of trade restrictions that were intended to ease emigration for Soviet Jews.

Also on the agenda: programs to help Russia clean up tons of deteriorating nuclear material and aging weapons. Both nations have a mutual interest in keeping such materials out of the hands of terrorists.

In courting the United States, Putin hopes to demonstrate that Russia still is a player on the world stage

While Bush enjoys a remarkable level of bipartisan support from Congress and the American public, Putin is under enormous pressure to win concessions in exchange for his support of the United States.

''We've got to give him some political cover back home,'' said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., co-chairman of a delegation of American lawmakers that meets regularly with their Russian counterparts.

''The ultra-nationalists and the communists are both sniping at him, others are accusing him of selling out the homeland, and he's got the military-industrial complex saying he's not caring about the loss of jobs,'' Weldon said.

From the time Bush first looked into Putin's eyes last June and claimed ''a sense of his soul,'' the two leaders have had a warm relationship.

The chemistry between the former KGB spy and the former Texas oilman held through their July 22 meeting in Genoa, Italy, when they formally linked missile defenses with reductions in nuclear weapons. In Shanghai, China, last month, Bush and Putin reported further progress toward agreement.

A deal on missile defense and arms reductions was taking shape, although U.S. officials cautioned that a formal arrangement was not necessarily in the works.

Generally, it calls for Russian acquiescence to continued U.S. missile defense tests -- but not deployment -- in exchange for an informal understanding that the United States will not withdraw from the ABM, at least for now.

Both sides also might agree to cut their nuclear arsenals from about 7,000 U.S. and 6,000 Russian warheads -- although probably not as low as to the 1,500 suggested by Russia.

Such a deal could represent a major arms control breakthrough, while also reflecting a recognition by both sides that deployment of any missile defense system remains years off.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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