- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday spurned President Clinton's bid for a nuclear-missile defense system, but agreed to two modest steps toward arms control.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Putin, holding a second day of summit talks at the Kremlin, agreed to create an early warning center in Moscow, where Russian and American military officials will share information about nuclear missile launches aimed at either nation.

Each country also agreed to scuttle 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium enough for thousands of nuclear weapons.

The leaders signed "principles of strategic stability," a statement in which Mr. Putin recognizes there is a growing threat of nuclear missile strikes by rogue nations such as North Korea.

But Mr. Clinton could not persuade the former KGB agent to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to permit a limited American missile defense based in Alaska.

"We're against having a cure that is worse than the disease," an unsmiling Mr. Putin said during a news conference with Mr. Clinton in the Kremlin's ornate St. George's Hall.

Mr. Putin believes such a move would hinder Russia's nuclear deterrent, altering the arms balance with the United States. European leaders warned Mr. Clinton last week that such a move could retrigger the nuclear arms race.

"I do not believe the decision before me is a threat to strategic stability and mutual deterrence," Mr. Clinton countered.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Putin sat at a wide table in an opulent hall of six chandeliers, marble columns and gleaming carved doors decorated with gold leaf. The leaders demonstrated none of the effusive chemistry Mr. Clinton shared with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Mr. Yeltsin, who resigned from the presidency Dec. 31, greeted Mr. Clinton with bear hugs and once served him moose lips at his summer dacha. Mr. Putin, 47, called Mr. Clinton "my colleague" and termed the talks "very constructive and businesslike."

Mr. Clinton ignored a question about the Russian president's personality and instead endorsed his leadership skills, saying Mr. Putin "is fully capable of building a prosperous, strong Russia, while preserving freedom and pluralism and the rule of law."

Mr. Putin offered unsolicited support for both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, saying Russia could work with either as president.

Mr. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has proposed an extensive nuclear shield that would protect America's allies in Europe. The lack of a breakthrough yesterday could give Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush more flexibility to propose their own own missile-defense plan as president.

Mr. Clinton is mulling a more modest unilateral missile defense. Mr. Clinton last week sought to reassure European leaders by offering to share America's missile-defense technology with other "civilized nations."

Mr. Clinton hopes to finish his presidency with a flourish, making progress on arms control with Russia and by hosting a Middle East peace summit. In Moscow, Mr. Clinton settled for interim steps with seven months left in his presidency.

Mr. Clinton saluted the agreements on plutonium and the early warning system as "major steps to reduce the nuclear danger."

He said the statement of principles "makes clear there is an emerging ballistic missile threat, which must be addressed, but we have not agreed how best to do so."

The project to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium could take 20 years and will cost an estimated $1.7 billion in Russia and more than $4 billion in the United States, said a senior U.S. official.

The United States and Russia will seek funding assistance from other industrial nations, beginning with the G-8 conference of the world's leading economies and Russia in July at Okinawa, Japan, the official said.

Russia will convert its surplus plutonium into nuclear power reactor fuel, a process that will render the plutonium unusable for nuclear weapons.

America will burn some of its plutonium as nuclear power reactor fuel. The rest will be blended with another material, pulverized into ceramic pucks and stored with high-level radioactive waste.

The early-warning system will be the first extended joint military operation involving Russia and the United States. Russian and American military officials will sit side by side and look at computer displays. They will exchange information if Russian or American warning systems detect a launch of a ballistic missile at either country.

The United States and Russia hope to reduce the danger of launching ballistic missiles due to "false warning of attack," said another senior administration official.

Mr. Clinton today becomes the first U.S. president to address the Duma, Russia's parliament. He will make a courtesy call to Mr. Yeltsin before he flies to Ukraine, the last stop on his diplomatic tour of Europe.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott told reporters yesterday that Mr. Putin did not mince words Saturday night when he hosted a dinner for Mr. Clinton at the Russian president's residence.

"President Putin made absolutely clear to President Clinton that Russia continues to oppose the changes to the ABM Treaty that the United States has proposed since last September," said Mr. Talbott.

Russia believes an American nuclear missile-defense system "will undermine strategic stability, threaten Russia's strategic deterrent and provoke a new arms race," said Mr. Talbott.

The statement of principles provides a framework for further discussion but "does not reflect or imply Russian agreement to change the ABM Treaty along the lines of our proposal," Mr. Talbott said.

The Russian president appeared unmoved yesterday as Mr. Clinton reiterated America's opposition to Russia's bloody crackdown in Chechnya.

"I believe a policy that causes so many civilian casualties without a political solution ultimately cannot succeed," Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Putin painted a hopeful picture of U.S.-Russian relations despite recent disputes over NATO's intervention in Kosovo and America's criticism of Russia's policy in Chechnya.

"We were allies" in World War II, Mr. Putin said. During the Cold War "there was a period of time when we suffered through confrontation between our two sides," he added.

"One would hope that the very worst in our relations is far, far behind us. For today, the United States is one of our main partners."

Last night, Mr. Clinton told a Moscow radio station he has no objection to working with Russia on a joint missile defense. But Mr. Clinton said such technology might be 10 years in the future. He said America is considering a missile defense now because North Korea may have the technology to fire a missile at the United States by 2005.

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