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Bush, Putin Vow to Slash Warheads

Defense: Nuclear arms will be cut by two-thirds, they declare separately. Their nations have overcome the 'legacy of the Cold War,' a joint statement asserts.

November 14, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Reflecting the change in relations between two Cold War adversaries, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin vowed Tuesday to cut their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds.

Bush's offer came first, at a White House news conference attended by both men. Putin responded later in the evening during a speech to a high-powered U.S. and Russian audience, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, at the Russian Embassy in Washington.

During the next 10 years, Bush said, the United States will bring its number of nuclear warheads, now approximately 7,000, down to the range of 1,700 to 2,200. At the news conference, Putin made no specific declaration to cut the number of Russian weapons, but he noted that "we, for our part, will try to respond in kind."

Several hours later, he did. Weapons, Putin noted, only stand in the way of better relations. "We no longer have to intimidate each other to reach agreements," he said in his speech, which was hosted by the embassy in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Nixon Center, two think tanks.

Tuesday's announcements followed a meeting at the White House that primarily focused on the nuclear arsenal but also addressed terrorism, the Middle East peace process, trade and other issues. In a joint statement, the two presidents said the former adversaries now have "a new relationship . . . founded on a commitment to the values of democracy, the free market and the rule of law. The United States and Russia have overcome the legacy of the Cold War. Neither country regards the other as an enemy or threat."

The Sept. 11 attacks on the United States gave new impetus to attempts to forge closer ties between the two countries--forcing the Bush administration to adopt a less unilateral approach to the rest of the world and jolting Moscow because of its own problems with Islamic fundamentalism.

The reduction in nuclear weapons by both sides would be the lowest levels of warheads since the 1960s. At the peak of the Cold War, the combined nuclear arsenal numbered about 30,000 weapons. But times are different now, Bush noted. "We're . . . working hard to put the threats of the 20th century behind us once and for all," he said.

With his unilateral decision on the cuts--which would take the U.S. arsenal below the level that some military planners consider the minimum requirement for deterrence--Bush sliced through the arms control process that has been the foundation of Washington-Moscow diplomacy since the Kennedy administration.

Bush presented the numbers as a decision made in Washington alone and not as a target to be negotiated with Moscow. That would have been the way arms levels were determined in the past, when each side argued for years over numbers of warheads and how to verify any agreement.

At the news conference, Putin had indicated that Moscow wants a negotiated agreement, with specific numbers and processes under which adherence can be confirmed--a course that would prohibit a buildup if Washington decided it had eliminated too many weapons. Such an agreement would be linked to the future of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which Bush considers outdated--and which both nations consider a crucial document blocking U.S. tests of a missile defense system.

It was unclear whether Putin's later remarks meant that he will not seek a negotiated agreement.

Bush and Putin agreed to begin negotiations on revisions to the ABM treaty, but Powell said no agreement on that issue should be expected any time soon.

At his evening address, Putin said he supports a "radical program of further reductions of strategic arms by at least three times," meaning a two-thirds reduction, Russian officials later clarified. With an arsenal of 5,858 nuclear warheads, that would leave Moscow with about 1,900--although Russia has talked to U.S. officials about both countries cutting back to 1,500, a figure the Russians can afford to maintain.

The two-thirds cutback would keep "a minimal level necessary for maintaining strategic balance in the world," Putin said.

Some Pentagon officials have said privately that 2,500 warheads is about as low as the U.S. arsenal should be allowed to go. If the total force is too small, they said, the nation would have no choice but to hit cities in retaliation for an attack. The ability to attack hardened military targets requires more weapons than are needed to target populated areas.

But there was no talk about the grim arithmetic of nuclear strategy Tuesday. Bush treated Putin as a trusted friend. According to a senior administration official, Bush concluded a discussion of terrorist attacks by telling Putin, "You're the kind of guy I like to have in a foxhole with me." After their news conference, Bush took Putin on an unplanned tour of the private residence on the third floor of the White House, surprising their wives at lunch.

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