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Russian negotiator hopeful over arms proposal

| Saturday, March 2, 2002

MOSCOW — A top Russian arms control negotiator said Friday that U.S. and Russian officials remain stuck in efforts to hammer out a new nuclear weapons agreement, but held out hope that a deal could be reached by a summit in May.

"We are running out of time, but I hope that the time limit will prompt us to work more efficiently," Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky said at a news conference.

Baluyevsky, who is representing Russia in the arms control consultations, said Moscow continues to strongly object to Washington's intention to keep decommissioned nuclear warheads in reserve rather than destroy them.

President Bush has promised to reduce U.S. nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia could go as low as 1,500 warheads from the current 6,000 the United States and Russia are each permitted under the START I treaty.

"The United States wants to stockpile the balance between 6,000 and 1,700 to 2,200 warheads, and that raises the question of where the promised radical cuts are," Baluyevsky said. "The Russian military sees that as a simple reduction in the level of combat readiness of nuclear weapons."

U.S. officials insist that they need to preserve enough flexibility to respond to future security threats. Some analysts say the United States also wants to save money by avoiding the need to restart production of nuclear weapons in the event of a change in the global situation.

But the cash-strapped Russian military, which lacks the funds to modernize its aging, Soviet-era nuclear arsenal, fears the U.S. plan would leave Russia with a smaller number of weapons.

"Speaking in sports terms, the United States and Russia are in different weight categories," Baluyevsky said. "We are searching for a compromise … but we won't give up the principle of equal security."

Russian officials have also urged the U.S. administration to put certain limits on its planned missile defense system to make sure it does not threaten Russia — something Washington has shown no intention of doing.

Baluyevsky said Russia, for example, would like the United States to limit the number of its missile interceptors, but U.S. officials have refused to accept such restrictions.

Bush, who will visit Russia in May, initially favored an informal deal on nuclear cuts. However, the U.S. administration has since agreed to a legally binding agreement.

The new warmth in U.S.-Russian relations, which were bolstered by Putin's firm support for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, has fed optimism that an agreement could be reached.

"If our presidents only meet and enjoy nice weather … without signing anything, we shall miss a chance that we have today," Baluyevsky said.

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