Russian U-turn on treaty opens way for 'Star Wars' deal

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Russia said for the first time yesterday that it would consider changes to the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 that America sees as an obstacle to its proposed missile defence shield. Previously, Moscow had ruled out any changes, saying the treaty was the cornerstone of nuclear arms control.

General Leonid Ivashov, the head of international co- operation at the Defence Ministry, said: "Russia does not rule out amendments to this agreement, but what the United States is demanding will lead to the collapse of the whole accord." Moscow has evidently decided the best way to preserve the substance of the treaty banning missile defence is to discuss US concerns over so-called rogue states developing their own missiles. Russia has neither the desire nor the resources to engage in a new arms race, if arms control treaties are abandoned.

President Vladimir Putin hinted at a change of policy earlier in the month when he said the 1972 treaty had been amended in the past. He also said that, if America deployed a missile shield, Russia could counter it by placing multiple missiles on its warheads.

General Ivashov, despite a reputation as a hawk, said Russia was willing "to sit down for consultations with Nato and the US and assess the world situation. We are ready to discuss missile threats."

Moscow has previously dismissed claims that America feels threatened by the likes of North Korea, saying the latter only has Russian Scud missiles dating from the Sixties and Seventies.

In the past year, Russia has switched from suggesting that the ABM treaty could not be changed to hinting that it might amend it. General Ivashov's statement suggests it has opted for the latter course of action.

Mr Putin knows the Russian defence annual budget of £5.7bn is too low to replace its present stock of ageing nuclear missiles. He does not even have the £1.4bn necessary to put multiple warheads on 140 missiles, as he threatened to do, according the Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakti. Yet on 26 June, the Strategic Rocket Forces successfully fired an SS-19 missile from Baikanur in Central Asia to Kamchatka on the Pacific coast. Whatever the state of the Russian economy, it remains a nuclear superpower with 6,000 warheads.

Moscow knows that National Missile Defence (NMD), the "Son of Star Wars", is opposed by most EU states and by the lesser nuclear powers of China and India. Chances of NMD deployment were also reduced when the Democratic Party gained control of the US Senate.

For Mr Putin a way to prevent the unilateral deployment of a missile shield by America is to open talks. His meeting with President George Bush in Slovenia earlier in the month laid the groundwork for this.

* The Pentagon has asked Congress for permission to start dismantling all 50 of its nuclear-tipped MX missiles as the first step towards a unilateral cut in its nuclear arsenal.