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Russia: Rumsfeld Visit Fails To Bridge Arms Differences

Judging from the public statements to emerge from yesterday's meetings between U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior Russian officials -- including President Vladimir Putin -- the two countries are still far apart on arms control issues. Rumsfeld was hoping to make the case for U.S. plans to build a missile defense system and withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But Russian officials held fast to their position that any plans by the U.S. to disregard the ABM Treaty will imperil three decades of progress in arms control. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker takes a closer look at yesterday's meetings.

Prague, 14 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Moscow yesterday apparently failed to narrow differences between the U.S. and Russia on key arms control issues.

Rumsfeld was making his first trip to the Russian capital since becoming head of the Pentagon earlier this year. He spent most of the day in separate consultations with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and President Vladimir Putin.

Rumsfeld was attempting to persuade his hosts to accept U.S. arguments for building a missile defense system and for withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that prohibits the development of such systems.

But judging from the public statements that have come out of the meetings, the two countries remain as far apart as ever on the issues.

In a news conference after the meetings, Rumsfeld tried to justify U.S. plans to build a shield that could intercept missiles fired by what the U.S. calls rogue states. He mentioned North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya as countries that are actively pursuing long-range missile programs.

"Given the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ability to deliver them, the United States has concluded that it is a wise thing to not continue to be vulnerable to ballistic missiles."

Rumsfeld tried to allay concerns that the proposed shield would render the nuclear forces of Russia obsolete. He said the missile defense system would be able to knock out only a relatively small number of missiles at a time -- not the thousands of missiles that Russia has in its arsenal.

"There is obviously no way that we are talking about a system that would begin to deal with hundreds, let alone thousands, of nuclear weapons. We are talking about small numbers from so-called rogue states."

The U.S. has warned that testing for the missile defense system will soon put it in technical violation of the ABM Treaty. It's been trying to persuade Russia to agree jointly to "lay aside" the treaty, but the U.S. says it will withdraw unilaterally if necessary.

Moscow sees the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of other arms control agreements, such as the START-1 and START-2 treaties that would limit the number of strategic weapons. START-2 has been agreed by both countries but has not yet been implemented.

Putin, during talks with Rumsfeld, underscored Russia's position on the ABM reaty:

"You know our attitude toward the ABM Treaty of 1972. For us, it is unconditionally linked with both the START-2 and START-1 treaties. I would like to underline that. That is why we would like to get the military and technical parameters of the proposals, which are being formulated in [the U.S. Department of Defense]."

Last month at a G-7 plus Russia summit in Italy, Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush discussed proposals that would link agreement on defensive weapons -- and possibly a missile shield -- to deep cuts in the number of offensive nuclear weapons.

Putin emphasized the issue again yesterday:

"We very much hope that the high level [of contacts] that we have had recently and that I mentioned before will bring us to agreements in the field of offensive weapons and defensive systems."

But Rumsfeld made no specific announcements of proposed cuts in the number of nuclear weapons.

He told reporters that he will be in a better position to talk about actual reductions in one or two months, following a departmental assessment. START-2 would cut the number of nuclear warheads allowed to each country to about 3,500, but Russia says it would like to reduce that number further.

Rumsfeld also reiterated the U.S. view that the ABM Treaty is outdated since the U.S. and Russia are no longer adversaries.

"We have a whole network of treaties that were designed a quarter of a century ago, or less, that were calculated to have two hostile states function without conflict."

He pointed out that the U.S. and Mexico, for example, don't need any special security agreements to keep the two countries from firing missiles at each other.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.