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Russia, U.S. Upbeat That Talks Could Soon Yield Arms Accord

By Sharon LaFraniere

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, said Monday that they were making progress in nuclear arms talks aimed at an accord that could be the centerpiece of next month’s presidential summit here.

At a news conference at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, Ivanov said he and Rumsfeld made some headway on “a number of new ideas” that Russia proposed four or five days ago. Ivanov said he hoped for “even greater progress” when talks resume in Washington this week.

Rumsfeld sounded slightly less positive, saying only that negotiations were progressing. Both men made clear they have not reached a deal.

Rumsfeld stopped off for two hours of talks at the airport as he wound up a trip to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. With the summit between Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin just more than three weeks away, the two sides are meeting every few days to try to forge an agreement.

The key issue is the handling of thousands of nuclear warheads that both countries have agreed to cut from their arsenals. The United States wants to hold them in reserve. Russia, whose weapons are fast becoming obsolete, wants both sides to destroy them.

A senior U.S. defense official traveling with Rumsfeld en route to Moscow said Washington is adamant about keeping some weapons on the shelf as a hedge against unforeseen threats. “It’s a fact of life,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Many military and political experts now agree that Russia -- like it or not -- probably cannot convince the United States otherwise.

Some analysts argue that Russia would lose little if the United States kept a few thousand warheads in reserve, because Moscow would still have hundreds of warheads ready to launch. Both sides have 5,500 to 7,000 warheads, depending on how they are counted. Russia has not been able to modernize its nuclear arsenal in the past decade and is unlikely to be able to afford to upgrade it any time soon.

Even though the United States could rapidly pull its warheads off the shelf, a strategic arms expert with the Academy of Military Sciences, Vladimir Dvorkin, said last week: “I don’t think that would be a serious threat to Russia because Russia will be able to retain the potential for nuclear deterrent.”

Nonetheless, arms control experts agree, Russia cannot be seen as simply giving in to the U.S. position without some face-saving concessions. One compromise might be to allow the United States to store its decommissioned warheads while giving the Russians some way to check on the reserve.