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Russia, U.S. Arms Talks End on Chill

Military: The sides agree to seek cooperation in some areas, but America's plan to store warheads has them at odds.

January 17, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A new round of U.S.-Russian military talks adjourned Wednesday with U.S. officials voicing hope for an eventual deal but Russians clearly concerned that the Americans may be unwilling to commit themselves to lasting nuclear arms reductions.

In a Pentagon news conference closing two days of meetings, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith said the two sides agreed to set up committees to improve cooperation on arms reduction, nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, missile defense and other issues.

But Russian Col. Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the head of the Russian delegation, made clear that Russia is concerned about American plans to store rather than destroy thousands of nuclear warheads that the U.S. has said it will take out of commission. He said Russians want the U.S. to commit itself in writing to a deal that is "irreversible."

Since the 2000 presidential campaign, President Bush, and later his administration, has been promoting plans to radically reshape the U.S.-Russian relationship so that it no longer revolves around highly detailed nuclear arms treaties. Bush has announced unilateral plans to pare the U.S. nuclear arsenal from about 7,000 deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 over 10 years.

U.S. officials hope to draft new military arrangements that could receive a final official blessing when Bush meets with President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia this spring.

But it has become clear in recent days that the Pentagon wants to retain the flexibility to quickly rebuild its forces--including the offensive nuclear arsenal--if a new threat develops.

Although Russian officials have been pressing the Americans to commit themselves to a binding treaty, U.S. officials have signaled that they would favor more informal agreements, perhaps joint communiques.

As Russians have voiced their unhappiness over arms issues, other strains have appeared in the relationship. U.S. officials have expressed concern over human rights issues in the separatist republic of Chechnya and the fate of Russia's independent news media.

Baluyevsky said Russia believes that the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty was a "mistake" that had affected the atmosphere for the talks.

In Moscow on Wednesday, the lower house of Russia's parliament voted 326-3 for a resolution condemning the U.S. withdrawal. The U.S. move was "destabilizing, since it in effect ruins the existing highly efficient system of ensuring strategic stability and paves ground for a new round of the arms race," said the State Duma's resolution.

The Bush administration believes that the treaty, which limited each nation's ability to shoot down incoming missiles, held back American efforts to develop important defenses against attack by "rogue" nations. But Russians believed that the treaty was a cornerstone of strategic stability.

Baluyevsky said the participants in the current talks did not intend to "make a tragedy" of the U.S. action, but are "working very hard to look for a mutual ground on which we can keep working in the future."

He said the Russian view was that the arms documents should provide "equal security for both sides."

Feith did not rule out the use of arms treaties, saying the United States was "completely open-minded on the subject." He said the United States had used a wide range of agreements over the years, from formal treaties to simple memorandums of understanding.

The United States intended to provide the Russians "predictability and transparency" in the agreement to reduce the offensive nuclear arsenals, he said.

Feith also sought to rebut criticism that the planned arms deal did not go far enough because the warheads would not be destroyed but only put in storage. He said several past arms control deals did not require destruction of warheads.

Tom Collina, an arms control advocate with the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that some Cold War-era treaties did not require destruction of warheads. But he said those treaties typically sought to limit nuclear strength by setting limits on the number of "launchers," such as land- or sea-based missiles.

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