WASHINGTON — The United States will not insist that Moscow agree to its new missile defense strategy by November, when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin pays a call on the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Thursday.
"We shouldn't see November as necessarily make or break," he said in an interview. "We have to keep all options open as to how we move forward, and all those options are being kept open."
The administration now appears to be backing away from initial hopes that Putin could be brought around before or during his visit. Agreement on a strategic framework to replace the Antiballistic Missile Treaty is critical to the United States, which wants to launch tests for its controversial missile defense system without violating restrictions in the pact. The accord has been the centerpiece of international arms control for three decades.
Powell's statement follows weeks of confusion over expectations for the summit, to be held at President Bush's Texas ranch. Several Russian officials have warned recently that negotiations could take a year or longer, while others still oppose abandoning the ABM treaty altogether.
Echoing other top administration officials, Powell said Thursday that Washington would not wait indefinitely.
"We'll have to see what happens between now and November and then make our judgment with respect to how our program is going forward and whether we feel we can't wait any longer or whether we can continue consulting with our allies, talking to the Chinese and also seeing what might be possible with the Russians," he said. "We've said all along that we will not allow this process to stop our going forward with missile defense."
Powell acknowledged that withdrawing unilaterally from the 1972 ABM treaty would create a diplomatic furor. "There will be a controversy over this, no question about it," he said.
But his tone was more conciliatory--and patient--than some earlier official pronouncements. Powell stressed that the United States wants to work with Russia on the most sensitive defense issue dividing the two former rivals.
"We want to go forward cooperatively. The Europeans want us to, the Congress would like us to. I think it's a better way to do it," he said.
The bottom line, however, is that the absence of even a general understanding between the two nations this year may dim Washington's hopes of proceeding quickly on missile defense.
The administration is still determined to expedite the effort, and this fall is to witness a flurry of diplomacy on three continents.
Over the next 10 days, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith will hold talks with top Russian security officials. Powell will meet his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, on Sept. 19, while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will discuss security issues with Russian defense chief Sergei B. Ivanov the following week. And Bush will meet Putin in Shanghai during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in mid-October.
The American envoys will emphasize the administration's flexibility on how to move toward deploying missile defense, Powell said.
"We . . . will speak to them about, OK, if you don't want to mutually withdraw [from the ABM treaty], let's look at what the alternatives are. One alternative is, we really can't wait any longer--we have to get on with our programs unilaterally. Or, can we find a way to modify this treaty, change this treaty, abandon [it], pick up something new? Or, is there a way to move forward so that we're not constrained in our recent research and development by the treaty?"
Powell said Moscow's greatest concern now is the expansion of what the United States says will be a limited missile defense system.
"They're looking for more predictability in what it is we're trying to do," he said.
But despite Russia's public concerns, it has now accepted the "inevitability" of a U.S. missile defense system, a senior State Department official said. While Moscow may hope to prolong negotiations by exploiting internal U.S. divisions on the scope and costs of the system, Russia recognizes that the idea now has firm bipartisan support, he added.
As a result, Putin has recently begun taking a "pragmatic" approach to the issue and will eventually be prepared to accept a "limited" defense shield, one designed to protect the United States against missiles from so-called rogue states, the official predicted.
A decade after the Cold War's end, the two new administrations are also now well on the road to establishing common ground on security issues, he added.
By November, the official said, "there's a reasonable chance we can make significant progress at least in sketching out the outlines of a new framework."