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UN: Debate Intensifies Over Potential Changes To ABM

Debate has intensified over whether the U.S. plan for a national missile defense system amounts to a breach of the ABM treaty or a simple adjustment to reflect new global realities. Nearly all speakers stressed the importance of the ABM agreement on the second day of the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Debate has deepened at the United Nations over the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and whether it is possible to amend it without undermining nuclear arms control.

The second day of the conference reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty featured repeated references to the U.S. missile defense plan and the consequences for ABM.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov devoted a large portion of his speech to the ABM issue, saying the U.S. missile plans were threatening to destroy the cornerstone of strategic stability in the world. Ivanov said the treaty can serve as the basis for further negotiations on nuclear disarmament as long as there are no modifications.

The 1972 ABM Treaty between Russia and the United States is based on the theory that a missile defense system would only cause the other side to build more missiles to overcome the defense system.

Ivanov told the conference the United States risks the unraveling of three decades of disarmament agreements by seeking to change the ABM treaty.

"Full clarity is needed here. Further reductions in strategic offensive weapons can only be considered in the context of preservation of the ABM Treaty. The historic role of that instrument lies in the fact that it opened the way towards deep reductions in strategic offensive arms on a stable and transparent basis."

Ivanov said Russia is prepared to discuss with U.S. and other officials how to counter the threat of missile attacks from rogue nations. He referred to a plan to limit access to missile technology, called the Global Missile and Missile Technologies Non-Proliferation Control System, that was proposed by Russia in March.

On the sidelines of the NPT conference Tuesday, two leading U.S. arms control officials said Washington was in favor of missile technology controls, but that they were not enough to counter threats from some states.

The officials are John Holum and Norman Wulf, who advise U.S. President Bill Clinton on arms control and non-proliferation matters. Holum says U.S. officials are hoping to show Russia that changes to the ABM treaty are not aimed at Moscow but are necessary to adapt to threats not envisaged in 1972.

"Our argument is basically that the treaty will be strengthened and preserved by modifying it to permit it to respond to threats that weren't contemplated at the time the treaty was negotiated almost 30 years ago."

Holum said there has been no discussion yet of a tradeoff involving deeper strategic arms cuts in the next round of START talks in exchange for a revision of the ABM treaty. Russia has been seeking deeper cuts than the United States on nuclear warheads in the upcoming START III talks. The issue is expected to be a key part of summit talks in June between Clinton and Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.

"We have not detected any flexibility on the Russian side. We've had five rounds of discussions, we've exchanged views but I can't say that we are on the brink of an agreement."

The slow implementation of nuclear arms reduction treaties by Russia and the United States, plus the new perceived threat to ABM, have provoked concern from many countries.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh told the conference on Tuesday that the sluggish U.S.-Russian talks were among many areas of concern. She said there have been more setbacks than progress on nuclear disarmament since the last review of the NPT treaty in 1995.

"Are these temporary setbacks or are we seeing the beginning of a new era of mistrust?"

Tuesday's session also heard notes of optimism from two former nuclear states -- Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The deputy foreign ministers of each country -- Olexander Chalyi and Karait Abuseitov -- pointed to their countries' successful conversion to nuclear-free states.

Chalyi said that following the removal of all nuclear arms, Ukraine is now entering the final phase of its dismantling of strategic arms facilities. Both Chalyi and Abuseitov pointed to the importance of preserving the ABM treaty.

The Kazakh deputy foreign minister also mentioned progress in talks for a Central Asia nuclear free zone. Abuseitov was hopeful of an agreement soon.

"The work on preparation of the treaty carried out during almost three years shows that the Central Asian states seriously and responsibly consider this issue. We hope that in the near future the text of the treaty will be agreed upon and eventually become a substantial contribution of the Central Asian countries to strengthening the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime."

The Ukrainian and Kazakh representatives, as well as Lithuanian Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas, all welcomed the recent ratification by Russia of the START-II disarmament agreement and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.