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Russia/U.S.: Bush, Putin Formalize Nuclear Reduction Treaty, Say Ties Remain Strong

St. Petersburg, Russia; 2 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush exchanged ratification documents yesterday on a treaty that calls for a two-thirds reduction of active nuclear weapons in their countries by the year 2012.

During their brief face-to-face meeting in St. Petersburg yesterday, the two also signed a formal protocol confirming the ratification of the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT). That development brings the treaty into immediate effect.

Bush and Putin had initialized the SORT treaty in May 2002. It has since been ratified by the legislatures of both countries. It calls for the active nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States to be cut to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads for each side during the next decade.

In their postsummit news conference, Bush and Putin both emphasized that the strategic partnership between the United States and Russia remains healthy despite recent disagreements over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and continued sparring over Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Putin said bilateral ties were "stronger" than the events that had tested them. He pledged to cooperate with the United States in order to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Still, Putin defended Moscow's trade ties with Iran -- including cooperation in the construction of a nuclear-power station in southern Iran which Washington alleges is part of a secret nuclear-weapons program.

"As concerns Iran, and I spoke about this completely openly today, we are against using nuclear programs, or anything else, as an instrument of unfair competition against our companies on the Iranian market," Putin said.

Moscow's nuclear cooperation with Iran has threatened to become another major thorn in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Washington has increased its rhetoric against Iran since the end of the war in Iraq, accusing Tehran of harboring senior Al-Qaeda operatives as well as working to develop nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is due to issue a formal report on Iran's nuclear activities at a two-day meeting in Vienna in two weeks (16-17 June). That report is expected to address whether Iran has violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Moscow recently urged the Bush administration to wait for the IAEA report before reaching any hasty conclusions about Iran's nuclear program.

None of those differences were publicly aired yesterday, as the Russian and U.S. presidents appeared at their postsummit press conference to try to outdo each other in the role of gracious host and guest.

But Bush told reporters the issue of Russian cooperation in Iran's nuclear sector had been discussed. Bush said he welcomed Putin's forthcoming attitude. "I appreciate Vladimir Putin's understanding of the issue and his willingness to work with me and others to solve this potential problem," Bush said.

Putin told a skeptical audience that the recent difficulties in bilateral relations, especially over Iraq, had actually served to make Russian-American relations stronger and friendlier. "Strange as it may seem, I also believe that despite all the problems during our work on Iraq, we managed not only to preserve our personal relations but also to improve the instruments of our cooperation," he said.

The two presidents agreed to expand bilateral communication channels at all levels of government and to continue pooling their efforts against international terrorism.

Bush, in what appeared to be a reference to recent deadly bombings in Russia's separatist Chechen Republic, said both the United States and Russia share similar concerns about terrorism because both had experienced terrorism on their territories.

Bush thanked Russia for its recent support of a United Nations resolution that lifted economic sanctions against Iraq. He also thanked Putin for Russia's help in bringing back U.S. astronauts from the International Space Station after the crash of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia left them stranded onboard the orbiting space station.

Bush also reiterated promises to help Russia gain entry into the World Trade Organization and said he would continue to lobby the U.S.Congress to repeal the 1973 Jackson-Vanik amendment -- a law from the Cold War era that links Russia's trade privileges to its policies on Jewish emigration.

Those promises, as noted, have been made before. Many in Russia have expressed frustration at the lack of progress on those two issues.But with both leaders keen to give the impression that all is well in U.S.-Russian relations following the Iraq war, the emphasis at today's summit was definitely on positive developments.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov -- speaking after President Bush left St. Petersburg yesterday for a summit of Group of Eight leading industrial nations in Evian, France -- said the talks between Putin and Bush have confirmed that relations between Russia and the United States remain on a friendly footing.

"A cardinal question for Russian-American relations, having undergone a time of trial during the Iraq crisis, was: 'Will we continue working together or will each side go their separate way?' It is very important that the meetings which just took place between the presidents of the United States and Russia convincingly confirmed that there is no alternative to Russia and America working together," Ivanov said.

In another sign of improved relations in the post-Saddam Hussein era, Bush has invited Putin to join him for a round of talks at Camp David, near Washington, in September of this year.