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Russia Willing to Compromise On Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

By Peter Baker

Russia signaled again Wednesday that it was willing to make “certain amendments” to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to accommodate President Bush’s desire to build a nuclear shield, but a top U.S. envoy said rewriting the 1972 pact would be impossible.

Instead, senior Bush negotiator John Bolton pushed Moscow to join Washington in withdrawing from the treaty altogether, a proposal flatly rejected by the Russian side, which is determined to preserve the ABM agreement in some form.

The impasse left the two sides no closer to a settlement of the most significant strategic issue separating the world’s preeminent nuclear powers as the United States proceeds with development of a missile defense system that could soon conflict with the restrictions of the Cold War-era treaty. Bolton acknowledged Wednesday that Russia had made no movement on the ABM dispute in two days of talks here.

“We’ve tried to explain our preference for mutual withdrawal and they have not agreed to that, that’s for sure,” he said. “But we’re still talking.”

Bolton said that there was “vast open space” for compromise but that he could not describe what middle ground exists between one side that refuses to withdraw from the treaty and the other that refuses to amend it. “I haven’t come up with an alternative, but if there are proposals the Russians have to make, we’re here to listen to them,” he said.

At a news conference following his consultations Wednesday evening, Bolton claimed some success in persuading the Russians to accept the U.S. rationale for a missile defense program, namely, the possible launch of a ballistic missile by a “rogue state” or by accident. The Russians, he said, told him that they would be even more vulnerable than the United States because they are nearer to unpredictable nations such as North Korea or Iraq.

“They didn’t dispute either the figures or the risk,” said Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. “I think this is something they’re beginning to appreciate.”

While the two sides remained far apart, they apparently felt positive enough about the discussions to consider extending them. Although Bolton was supposed to wrap up his consultations Wednesday, officials were working to arrange a Friday meeting with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who would return from a vacation in the Crimea to jump back into the talks. Bolton scheduled another meeting with the Russians for Sept. 13 or 14 in advance of a planned Sept. 19 session in the United States between Ivanov and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The intense pace reflects Bush’s desire to win Russian acquiescence to his plan to develop a program to shoot down ballistic missiles. The administration has said its testing would bump up against treaty restrictions within “months, not years.”