Bush and Putin on brink of missiles deal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

President George Bush has won Russia's full support for his anti-terrorist attacks against Afghanistan, and also appears to have narrowed his differences with President Vladimir Putin on missile defence and cuts in the two countries' still massive nuclear arsenals.

Whether the two leaders are on the brink of a breakthrough will only become apparent next month when the Russian President visits Washington before going on to spend time with Mr Bush at his ranch at Crawford, Texas.

But yesterday's meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum summit in Shanghai left little doubt as to how the terror attacks of 11 September are transforming ties between the two former superpower rivals.

Speaking after a 90-minute discussion with Mr Putin, the American President confirmed they had examined a new round of cuts in their nuclear arsenals from the level of 3,000 to 3,500 warheads apiece contained in the Start-2 treaty. This, he added, would be within a framework "of limited defence protecting both our lands from political blackmail".

Afterwards Mr Putin seemed to soften his opposition to the amendment or scrapping of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty ­ changes implicit if Mr Bush is to go through with his plans for a defence shield protecting America from a missile attack. Yesterday, President Bush again described the ABM treaty, which Russia has long regarded as the cornerstone of nuclear arms control efforts, as "outdated and dangerous". Instead of rejecting this approach, as he did before 11 September, Mr Putin indicated that agreement was possible, "taking into account the national interests of Russia and the US". The same clearly goes for reducing the two countries' weapons stockpiles, acknowledged by both sides to be far higher than necessary in the post-Cold War era. Washington and Moscow both retain more than 6,000 warheads, and Mr Putin ­ joined now perhaps by Mr Bush ­ is keen to push the figure down to 1,500.

Particularly welcome to Mr Bush was Russia's specific endorsement of the air and ground operations against Aghanistan. Indonesia and Malaysia, which are predominantly Muslim, prevented the Apec summit explicitly backing the military offensive against Islamic Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden.

But Mr Putin had no such inhibitions. Calling the US response "measured and adequate", Mr Putin also pledged Moscow's full co-operation with Washington in combating nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He underlined his commitment to the cause when he arrived in Tajikistan early today for talks with Burhanuddin Rabbani, the deposed president of Afghanistan and leader of the Northern Alliance.

Moscow depicts its long campaign to suppress the Chechen insurgency as part of the global struggle against terrorism, of a piece with American retaliation in Afghanistan.

Though the bilateral meeting with Mr Putin was the most important moment of Mr Bush's stay in Shanghai, American officials professed themselves "thrilled" with the wider summit's statement "unequivocally condemning" the 11 September attacks.

Shelving their strictly economic remit, participants at the annual meeting of the Apec forum issued the first political statement in the organisation's 12-year history. While the wording of the statement avoids mention of Osama bin Laden and the ongoing assault on Afghanistan, to accommodate the sensitivities of Malaysia and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, a senior American official told reporters yesterday: "We're thrilled with this statement ... it does everything we wanted it to." For the first time, President Bush called the 11 September attacks an attempt to destroy world financial markets and to ruin the global economy.

The uncertainty following the attacks has hit many Asian economies, which are highly dependent on exports to America. "The nations meeting here in Shanghai understand what is at stake," Mr Bush said.