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U.S.: Bush And Putin Begin Summit By Pledging Cuts In Nuclear Arsenals

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, concluding the first of three days of meetings in the United States, announced agreement on a broad range of issues. Most notably, the two leaders pledged deep cuts in their country's nuclear arsenals.

Washington, 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin began their three-day summit with an announcement that they already had found common ground on many issues.

The two leaders said yesterday at a joint White House news conference that they agree on methods of reconstructing Afghanistan after the Taliban are driven out, the importance of protecting their nuclear weapons, the need to fight organized crime and drug trafficking, and most important, the need to be done with holdovers from the 20th century.

Two of these holdovers are the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM, and the vast number of strategic nuclear warheads that both countries have possessed since the days of the Cold War. Bush said the progress made in talks on these issues was significant: "This is a new day in the long history of Russian-American relations, a day of progress and a day of hope."

Bush announced a drastic reduction in the American arsenal, which now comprises about 7,000 warheads: "Current levels of our nuclear forces do not reflect today's strategic realities. I have informed President Putin that the United States will reduce our operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next decade, a level fully consistent with American security."

Putin, during a later speech at the Russian embassy, stopped short of pledging definite cuts, but proposed a dramatic reduction: "We propose a radical program of further cuts in the strategic offensive weapons -- at least three times, down to the minimal level necessary for maintaining a strategic balance in the world. We do not have to frighten each other any more in order to come to an agreement."

Ivo Daalder, who served on the White House National Security Council during the presidency of Bill Clinton, told RFE/RL that Putin's remarks indicate he may reduce Russia's number of strategic nuclear warheads from the current level of about 5,800 to 1,500 -- a level even lower than Bush's cut.

Daalder says such a reduction would mean an important financial savings for Russia. Without cutting the cost of maintaining its nuclear force, he says Moscow cannot afford to maintain its conventional forces properly. And he adds that he is not concerned that Putin did not announce a definite reduction. He says Russia will cut its nuclear arsenal eventually: "They [the Russians] don't have enough to feed their soldiers, or to house them, so keeping up a large nuclear stockpile is something that is difficult if not impossible for them to do economically. So they're going to go down [reduce their nuclear weapons] no matter what happens."

Daalder, now an analyst with the Brookings Institution, a private Washington policy center, says keeping the weapons is not expensive in itself. But to maintain its number of warheads, it must create new ones to replace those that become less effective with age: "A lot of the weapons that Russia has are getting old, and to replace them -- in order to maintain the level that they are at now -- with new weapons, would be very expensive. And every missile or nuclear warhead that you build means that you can't buy another tank or feed or house your soldiers."

According to Daalder, reducing Russia's arsenal of strategic warheads to 1,500 would save Moscow about $2 billion a year. This is not an enormous savings, he says, but it would be welcome nonetheless.

Despite a broad range of agreement and good feeling between Putin and Bush, and despite a flurry of news reports predicting a breakthrough, one issue continues to keep them apart -- the ABM Treaty.

Since he took office in January, Bush has pushed for the testing and eventual deployment of a missile-defense system -- a project Putin has hotly opposed on the grounds it would violate the 1972 treaty.

Bush has said repeatedly that the shield has nothing to do with Russia or any other major nuclear power. Its target would be less sophisticated missiles fired by so-called "rogue states" like Iraq or North Korea. Putin in turn has insisted that the ABM be respected.

Bush responded yesterday as he has many times previously, saying the treaty -- signed by both nations at the height of the Cold War -- is outdated and irrelevant. He has said it is time to "go beyond" the treaty -- in other words, to withdraw from it.

Yesterday, Putin told the White House news conference that "the position of Russia [on the ABM Treaty] remains unchanged." Recently, however, the Russian president has indicated that he is "flexible" about the treaty.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, has repeatedly warned that the issue is not likely to be resolved during the current summit. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated that sentiment yesterday, saying an agreement on ABM between the two presidents will not come soon.

But at yesterday's news conference, Bush spoke of the issue more optimistically: "We have different points of view about the ABM Treaty, and we will continue dialogue and discussions about the ABM Treaty so that we may be able to develop a new strategic framework that enables both of us to meet the true threats of the 21st century as partners and friends, not as adversaries."

Despite their differences, Putin and Bush said they have much in common. They agreed that the government succeeding the Taliban in Afghanistan must be "broadly based and multiethnic." Both men also renewed pledges of support for General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan who has cooperated broadly in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, despite the disapproval of some of his countrymen.

And Bush made a strong gesture of support for Putin over Russia's military action in Chechnya. Bush said he is encouraged by what he called the Russian president's commitment to a political dialogue with the fighters in the breakaway Caucasus republic. The U.S., which had been critical of Russia's actions in the two-year-old conflict, softened its stance after Putin pledged his country's support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Bush also praised Putin for easing restrictions on emigration and improving Russia's treatment of minorities. As a result, he said he will ask the U.S. Congress to repeal a law enacted during the Cold War that has hampered the development of U.S.-Russian commercial ties.

Treatment of Jews, and Moscow's refusal to allow them to emigrate freely from the Soviet Union, was a major issue between the U.S. and Moscow nearly three decades ago. At that time, Congress passed legislation that restricts trade with countries that did not allow open emigration. The law, still in force, is seen as an obstacle to U.S. approval of Moscow's efforts to join the World Trade Organization.

Bush and Putin will resume their summit today at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.