After months of talks with top Russian officials, Moscow is being swayed that US missile defense tests pose no threat, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told the New York Times in an interview published Sunday.
Rice said that talks with officials, including President Vladimir Putin, were "bearing fruit," and that Moscow is beginning to realize that US tests were "not actually a threat" to them.
President George W. Bush has described the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which forbids testing anti-missile weapons, as an outdated relic of the Cold War. Russia however views the treaty as a cornerstone of arms control.
Although it is the first time a high-ranking US official has suggested that Russia is warming up to US test plans, Rice gave few details to the Times on any agreement ahead of Putin's November 12-15 trip visit to the United States.
"I think that the Russians are beginning to see that what we've said all along is true: that the near-term program for missile defense, which is really a testing and evaluation program, is not actually a threat to them," Rice told the Times.
US officials are working on an assumption that Russia may agree to permit the tests, and in exchange Bush will put off any decision on abandoning the ABM treaty, according to other government officials consulted by the Times.
Meanwhile, Russia and China said Saturday that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty remains the "cornerstone" of international strategic stability, a senior Kremlin official said.
In a 90-minute meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao discussed "ways to maintain and strengthen strategic stability, of which ABM is the cornerstone," Sergei Prikhodko, deputy chief of the presidential staff, told reporters.
"The 1972 ABM Treaty has been and continues to be a cornerstone of this process," he said following the Putin-Hu meeting.
Their talks came ahead of Putin's visit to the United States next month, which is expected to be dominated by the missile treaty.
Washington wants to abandon or modify the treaty, but US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that Washington recently held off from conducting tests for a missile defense system that could have been seen as a violation of the pact.
The insistence by Russia and China that the ABM Treaty constitutes the bedrock document for strategic stability in the world was not new.
But their reiteration came less than a week after US Secretary of State Colin Powell said Russia was adopting a flexible approach to interpretation of the pact and two weeks ahead of summit talks between Putin and US President George W. Bush which are expected to touch on the ABM Treaty.
It also came as Russia and China accelerate their efforts to develop a new strategic partnership that Putin said Saturday was yielding a "high level" of cooperation between them in the international arena and other areas.
"We are delighted to confirm the current level of our relations and to lay plans for the near future" for developing them, Putin told reporters as he sat down for his meeting with Hu.
At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai, Putin said he and Bush "made some progress" on the 1972 ABM treaty but expressed skepticism of the US leader's view that the September 11 attacks made building such a defence all the more important.
The Shanghai meeting "opened the way for an understanding on strategic and defensive weapons," the US ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, said.
Prikhodko said Putin and Hu also discussed the situation in Afghanistan and prospects for a "post-Taliban settlement" there, but offered no details.
In earlier developments on Friday, the US ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow said the Russian and US presidents could sign an agreement on strategic defensive weapons as early as next month during Putin's visit to Bush's ranch in Texas.
Preparations for Putin's November 12-15 trip to the United States were getting under way, with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov discussing the likely agenda in telephone talks with his US counterpart Colin Powell, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The meeting of the two presidents at a regional summit in Shanghai earlier this month may have opened the way to an agreement on strategic defence, Vershbow said in an online press conference organised for Russian Internet users.
The meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum had been most successful and very important, he said.
Asked if the signing of an agreement was possible, Vershbow said he could "rule nothing out."
The Shanghai meeting had given "strong momentum to the transformation of our relations," Vershbow said.
Given the new situation in their relations, Vershbow said he hoped that "Russia and the United States will find a mutually acceptable solution to many issues," including the missile defense issue.
Highlighting Russia's unprecedented support for the United States in its anti-terrorist campaign currently mobilised against Afghanistan's Taliban regime, Vershbow said this would set a positive precedent for future cooperation.
"So I am sure we'll find advantageous solutions to various problems, particularly that of the ABM treaty," he said.
"Putin's choice (of siding with the United States) is a strategic choice, showing that he is determined to find a solution to the most difficult challenges. I think that will provide important dividends in the future, particularly in our mutual relations."
The envoy's optimism came as Washington said it was suspending two missile defense tests ahead of the Bush-Putin meeting in order to avoid accusations it was violating the ABM treaty.
Russian deputies of right and left welcomed the move, seeing it as an example of greater US willingness to cooperate with its partners, though some commentators saw it more as a matter of expediency than principle.
The Russian foreign ministry said that Putin's US trip, during which he is expected to visit Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, would run from November 12 to 15.
Preparing the agenda, Ivanov and Powell discussed strategic defence, including the US intention to sideline the ABM treaty, and international terrorism, the ministry said.
Russian-US relations cooled at the start of the year when the incoming Bush administration announced its intention to scrap the ABM, which bars it from building a space-based defence shield, but have picked up markedly since Russia gave support to the US-led anti-terrorist campaign.
US officials have continued to insist that the defence shield project will go ahead, with or without amendments to the ABM treaty.
But on Thursday, in an apparent concession to Russian sensitivities, the Pentagon said it had called off two missile defense tests ahead of the Bush-Putin summit in order to avoid accusations that it was violating the ABM accord.
On Monday, on his way back from the Shanghai summit, Powell said Russian officials had hinted they might be more flexible in their attitude to US missile defence testing under the ABM treaty.
Olga Nedbaeva and Bernard Besserglik, both in Moscow, contributed to this reportRelated Links
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Rumsfeld Calls Off ABM Test
Washington (AFP) Oct 25, 2001
The Pentagon has called off two missile defense tests ahead of talks next month between President George W. Bush and Russia's President Vladimir Putin to avoid accusations it was violating the 1972 ABM treaty, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced.
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