Washington piled diplomatic pressure on Russia, Thursday with a warning that time was running out to strike a missile defense deal as the two sides set out a tight three-month timetable for negotiations.
A trio of top U.S. officials including U.S. foreign police adviser Condoleezza Rice met President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin as the two sides tackled the missile dispute and Russian demands to be declared a free market economy.
Rice was accompanied by U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Washington sending its most senior delegation to Moscow since U.S. President George W. Bush took office in January.
But strategic stability dominated the agenda as Rice met a host of top Russian defense officials, warning that Washington’s patience had its bounds and it planned to move beyond the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty no matter what Russia had to say about it.
A top Moscow minister later announced that the two sides had agreed a busy negotiating timetable aimed at helping resolve the dispute by the time Bush and Putin met on the sidelines of the October 20-21 APEC summit in Shanghai.
“President Bush made it very clear that he believes there is a threat, a new threat, and we will need to move, to go beyond ABM so that we can have a serious testing and evaluation program that gets us a solution to the threat,” Rice warned after meeting Putin.
Bush “has not set a specific deadline, but it should be obvious to all concerned that the president believes that this is something that will happen relatively soon,” she said. “The testing program will proceed.”
Her comments confirmed Monday’s statement by Bush, who warned that “if we can’t reach agreement, we’re going to implement” the missile defense shield, which Russia opposes, saying it could spark a new arms race.
Bush and Putin have already agreed to link negotiations on missile defense to bilateral nuclear arms cuts, a proposal that Rice said was “heavily discussed” during her meetings with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Security Council secretary Vladimir Rushailo.
Putin himself did not address the issue.
Instead, offering to turn over a new leaf in Moscow’s at-times chilly ties with Washington, Putin said the U.S. team’s visit should “add new meaning to our relations, without the problems that have lingered on from the past.”
And he specifically addressed Russia’s desire to be declared a free market economy by Washington, thus paving the way for increased trade between the two sides.