- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

GENOA, Italy — President Bush yesterday reached a surprise breakthrough agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin to begin talks on supplanting the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with a global missile defense shield that would be linked to cuts in nuclear missile arsenals.
It was a dramatic foreign policy triumph for Mr. Bush, who was given little chance when he took office six months ago of convincing the former KGB official to scrap the ABM Treaty, which has been the sacrosanct cornerstone of nuclear nonproliferation for nearly three decades. But at the conclusion of two hours of meetings yesterday, ABM's days appeared numbered.
Although Mr. Putin had earlier threatened to beef up Russia's nuclear arsenal if the United States insisted on scuttling ABM, he backed away from that threat yesterday after Mr. Bush reassured him that both sides would reduce their stockpiles and the United States would not act unilaterally in building a missile shield.
"We're young leaders who are interested in forging a more peaceful world," Mr. Bush declared as he stood next to his Russian counterpart at a news conference in this Italian port city. "Both of us want to seize the moment and lead.
"I appreciate so very much President Putin's willingness to think differently about how to make the world more peaceful," Mr. Bush added.
The Russian president, while stopping short of explicitly embracing missile defense, displayed more open-mindedness than ever to this sea change in arms negotiations. And while he was also careful not to openly repudiate ABM, he seemed heartened that any such eventual decision would be linked to bilateral cuts in nuclear stockpiles.
"Together, we're going to move forward in this direction, substantially changing the situation in the world, making it better throughout the whole world, reducing thresholds of confrontation," Mr. Putin enthused. "Without any doubt, this would ameliorate the climate throughout the whole world. There has to be absolutely no doubt that this is going to happen."
By bringing in Mr. Putin as a full partner in the development of what Mr. Bush calls a "new strategic framework," the American president elevated the Russian president to the status of near-equal, something not seen since the demise of the old Soviet Union more than a decade ago. The Russian leader can now position himself to help Mr. Bush drive the arms control process, rather than be left behind on a journey the Americans seem willing to go alone, if necessary.
And Mr. Bush, who indicated at the start of his presidency that he would be willing to reduce America's nuclear stockpile unilaterally, now appears to have convinced the Russians to follow suit. The arrangement would undercut Mr. Bush's critics, such as Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, who just last week accused the president of alienating Russia by proceeding unilaterally on missile defense.
Yesterday's announcement gave new urgency to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's mission to Russia this week. Miss Rice, who departs for Moscow tomorrow, wants to set up an ambitious schedule of talks.
"We expect to move quickly," she told reporters after the Bush-Putin meetings. "It clearly will be an aggressive schedule. And I think both presidents want it to be an aggressive schedule."
The speedy timetable was in keeping with Mr. Bush's desire to begin deploying the first components of a missile defense system as early as 2004. It might also allow Mr. Putin to save face by enabling him to help supplant the ABM Treaty before it is abrogated by a test of the system scheduled for next year.
The 1972 ABM Treaty between the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union barred both nations from defending themselves against missile attacks. Hammered out during the Cold War when the two superpowers were virtually the only nations on Earth capable of launching massive nuclear attacks, the treaty hinged on the logic that both sides would refrain from first strikes because they would be defenseless against counterstrikes.
But with the Cold War long over and an increasing number of rogue nations able to field nuclear and other types of long-range missiles, Mr. Bush has argued that ABM endangers not just America but also Russia. Mr. Putin appears to agree, having yesterday suggested to Mr. Bush that they issue a joint statement committing themselves to "intensive consultations."
"I have to say that, to some extent, what was unexpected both for me, and I think for President Bush as well, was the understanding that was reached today between us on the issue that the offensive arms and issue of defensive arms will be discussed as a set," Mr. Putin said. "We're going to be talking about the mutual striving towards cutting back significantly offensive arms."
Reminded by a reporter that he once threatened to enlarge Russia's arsenal if the United States abrogated ABM, Mr. Putin denied changing his stance.
"We were talking about the possible kinds and versions of response in the event that one side comes out unilaterally," he said. "I was not talking about increasing the missiles. I was talking about how you would substitute single-unit warheads, make them MIRV warheads."
He was referring to multiple independent re-entry vehicles, missiles that each carry numerous nuclear weapons that can fan out to strike separate targets.
"But if, as we said today, and if, as we understood from each other today, we are ready to look at the issue of offensive and defensive systems together as a set, we might not ever need to look at that option," Mr. Putin said. "But this is one of the subjects of our future discussions.
"As a whole, we agreed in general that in any version, today we can go forward toward reducing offensive arms," the Russian leader concluded. "We've reached a most important accord, agreement, on the beginning and the schedule for consultations."
Mr. Bush, while sharing the enthusiasm of his Russian counterpart, cautioned that the process will not be easy.
"Inevitably, there will be questions, because after all, what we're talking about doing is changing a mind-set of the world," the president said. "We're basically saying the Cold War is forever over, and the vestiges of the Cold War that locked us both into a hostile situation are over.
"And we're exploring the opportunity to redefine the strategic framework for keeping the peace not that has existed in the past, but a strategic framework as we go out in the 21st century," Mr. Bush said. "It's an exciting opportunity, and I can tell you that the discussions have been very meaningful."
He added: "So I believe that we will come up with an accord."
The breakthrough came after days of informal talks that the two leaders managed to squeeze between official meetings at the Group of Eight summit here, which ended yesterday. At dinners, receptions and every other opportunity, Mr. Bush was seen approaching the Russian leader and engaging him in conversations described by observers as earnest and relaxed.
"I was struck by how easy it is to talk to President Putin, how easy it is to speak from my heart, without fear of complicating any relationship," Mr. Bush said.

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