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Bush Administration Downplays Prospect of ABM Withdrawl Damaging US-Russian Relations - 2001-12-14

The Bush administration is downplaying the prospect of serious damage to U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of President Bush's decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In a long-anticipated move, Mr. Bush Thursday gave Moscow the required six-month notice that it is leaving the arms accord.

Although Moscow has considered the ABM treaty the cornerstone of disarmament efforts extending back to the Soviet era, administration officials are confident the U.S. pullout will not badly harm bilateral relations or cause a new arms race.

In a talk with reporters here, Secretary of State Colin Powell put heavy stress on Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement that while Moscow considers the U.S. move mistaken, it does not see the treaty pullout as compromising Russia's security. "The best evidence that they do not feel threatened, and are not engaged, or are planning to engage in such an arms race, is the fact that President Putin matched and even went a little lower than President Bush's range of strategic offensive warheads, and in his statement today said let's move forward aggressively to put this into a legal framework so the two presidents can bind the two nations at this lower level," he said. "That is not the basis of an arms race, quite the contrary."

President Putin said Thursday Moscow would agree to cut its offensive nuclear forces to as few as 1,500 warheads, similar to Mr. Bush's offer last month to reduce the U.S. stockpile to a minimum of 1,700 weapons.

Secretary Powell said the two countries' defense chiefs would renew discussions in Brussels next week on an arms-reduction deal that both sides hope to conclude in time for a U.S.-Russian summit in Moscow in the middle of next year.

In his treaty withdrawal announcement, President Bush reiterated his argument that the ABM pact is a relic of the Cold War and an obstacle to the United States protecting itself against missiles fired by rogue states or terrorist groups saying the September 11 terror attacks only served to underscore the danger.

Mr. Bush explained his decision in a Thursday phone call to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, whose government fears a U.S. anti-missile system could nullify its nuclear deterrent force.

The White House move drew criticism from Democrats in Congress and U.S. arms control experts who contend, among other things, that the administration could have continued some anti-missile tests without having to scrap the treaty.