Putin denies breakthrough with US on missile defence

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The Independent Online

As Russian critics of President Vladimir Putin accused him of surrendering to the United States over missile defence, the Russian leader denied yesterday that a breakthrough had been made in talks on arms control with President George Bush in Genoa.

The Russian leader back-pedalled hastily from what he said at the end of the G8 summit which implied Russia would accept the US abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 in return for a cut in the nuclear arsenals of both sides.

"We have made no principle breakthrough," Mr Putin was quoted by the Kremlin as telling his top ministers in Moscow. "Nevertheless, there has been considerable progress." He reasserted Moscow's commitment to the ABM treaty.

The Russian media interpreted the outcome of the talks in Genoa as a climbdown by Mr Putin. The daily Kommersant, owned by Boris Berezovsky, a critic of Mr Putin, said: "The US President has every right to feel the winner." The business daily Vedemosti said: "Russia is ready to agree with US missile defence plans in exchange for cuts in the US missile potential."

The problem for Mr Putin is that he wants to talk to the Umited States as if Russia was still a superpower like the old Soviet Union. He knows that Russia does not have the resources for a new arms race or a renewal of the Cold War.

He also wants to reassure the West Europeans, with their own doubts about the so-called "Son of Star Wars" programme, that Moscow is moderate and willing to negotiate.

Unfortunately, the US has a different interpretation of the purpose of talks with the Kremlin. Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, made brutally clear to American reporters at Genoa that the proposed discussions with Russia would not be negotiations, but more like consultations during which each side will tell the other what it intends to do.

Mr Bush stressed yesterday, after talks with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, that he did not want the talks with the Russians to drag on. "His nation has been bound by the treaty. It's a treaty, of course, from which either party can withdraw with ample notice," said Mr Bush. "And I can understand why he wants time, and I'm going to give him some time, but I also want to emphasise to you that time is of the essence. It is time to move beyond."

Mr Bush is committed to building a missile defence system and his officials have said the US may want to scrap the ABM treaty in a few months.

Ms Rice is visiting Moscow this week to work on a framework, as agreed in Genoa, for "the intensive consultations on the interrelated subjects of offensive and defensive systems." But there is little evidence that either side is prepared to give ground despite their willingness to talk.

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