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U.S./Russia: Arms Talks Face Tough Challenges

U.S. President Bill Clinton is scheduled to hold a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 4-5. The top issue is expected to be nuclear arms. The U.S. is seeking to amend a nearly three-decade old treaty that prohibits both sides from building a shield to intercept nuclear missiles. It also seeks to further cut nuclear weapons. But there are key disagreements on several fronts. RFE/RL's Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos looks at the issues.

Washington, 3 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and Russian officials are exploring ways to further limit nuclear weapons, while at the same time leaving the door open to deal with potential threats from third countries.

The discussions have centered on the Cold War-era Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that forbids both sides from building defenses aimed at shooting down incoming rockets. The idea behind the ABM treaty was to make a nuclear war unthinkable in light of the fact that each side had thousands of warheads at its disposal.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago and the emergence of new potential nuclear powers, the U.S. now argues that today's realities mandate different approaches. Earlier this year, the U.S. presented Russia a proposed draft agreement that would allow the United States to deploy a limited missile defense system.

The U.S. says it needs to protect itself against the threat of attacks from the so-called rouge nations of North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya.

A summary of the U.S. Administration arguments given to Russian officials says the U.S. national defense system would be limited and intended to defend against only a small number of missiles. It said the proposed shield would be incapable of threatening Russia's strategic nuclear deterrence, which still commands thousands of warheads and the means to launch them.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Monday the Russians have nothing to fear from a U.S. missile shield.

"We've made a public argument and a private argument that this limited national missile defense does not pose a strategic threat to the Russians and it is designed to counteract an increasing threat from rogue nations."

Lockhart also said that the U.S. considers its strategic relations with Russia pivotal and seeks further nuclear cuts.

"It is our policy to not only make sure that we're doing everything we can to develop solid relations with the Russian government; it's also our policy and our arms control strategic goal to reduce the number of missiles that the Russian government has."

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who held talks in Washington last week with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said Moscow is opposed to amending the 1972 ABM treaty. President Clinton is expected to focus on arms reduction issues during a planned summit in Moscow next month with recently elected Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last month, the Russian state Duma ratified after a long delay the START II treaty that cuts nuclear weapons on both sides. But Russian lawmakers made ratification conditioned on the U.S. abandoning plans to build a limited anti-ballistic missile system. The U.S. Senate already has ratified the START 2 treaty without conditions.

Several members of the U.S. Congress met on Tuesday in Washington with a visiting Duma delegation. They expressed concern about the Duma's conditioning its ratification.

Congressman Doug Bereuter, a Republican from Nebraska and a member of the House International Relations Committee, summed up Congressional feelings this way.

"In my view not only does such linkage put a dire risk to the implementation of the Start II treaty but it also calls into question the prospects for any further nuclear weapons reduction."

Republican Senator Jesse Helms, the chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week that the Senate will not ratify any arms treaty with Russia during Clinton's remaining term in office that ends in January. Treaties must be ratified by the Senate in order for them to go into effect.

Helms summed up his views this way in remarks last week on the Senate floor:

"With all due respect, I do not intend to allow this president to establish his legacy by binding the next generation of Americans to a future without a viable national missile defense."

Helms said Clinton is trying to lock the U.S. into a system that cannot defend the American people.

"For nearly eight years, while North Korea and Iran raced forward with their nuclear programs, and while China stole the most advanced nuclear secrets of the United States, and while Iraq escaped international inspections, President Clinton did everything in his power to stand in the way of deploying a national missile defense."

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, said in a recent study that Clinton should go ahead as rapidly as possible with the anti-missile defense system. Heritage research fellow Baker Spring said the technology already exists to begin deploying it.

A Congressional Budget Office study estimates that the total price tag, over 15 years, for the Clinton administration's limited ground-based missile defense system could be $60 billion.

Presumed Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, who also met with Ivanov in Washington, says he favors development of a U.S. defense system to protect Americans and their allies "against a rogue missile launch, against any missile launch. It's part of redefining a post Cold War era."

Bush said he made it clear to Ivanov that if elected president his first and foremost priority would be to keep the peace between the two countries.