Putin backs Bush on strikes

But president leaves summit without APEC endorsement

Missile defense debated

October 22, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush returned to Washington overnight with strong Russian backing for the U.S. airstrikes and ground assaults in Afghanistan, but Pacific Rim leaders failed to unite behind military action in the campaign against terror.

"I fully agree with the position of President Bush, and I believe that his action was measured and adequate to the threat that the United States was confronted with," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said at a joint news conference yesterday before Bush left the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit in Shanghai, China.

Putin's support helped compensate Bush for the absence of an APEC endorsement of military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But the group did issue a strong condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and called all forms of terror a "profound threat" to the world.

Two APEC members with large Muslim populations, Indonesia and Malaysia, have called for an end to U.S. bombing raids. Indonesia's foreign minister, Hasan Wirayuda, warned of an explosive reaction from the Muslim world if the attacks continued into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-November.

Although Putin backed Bush's use of force, he dismissed the president's argument that the threat of international terrorism makes it even more necessary for the United States and Russia to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which blocks the development and deployment of an anti-missile defense shield. Missile defense is a key White House goal.

Bush, at the news conference, said the ABM treaty prevents peace-loving nations from protecting themselves from terrorists who might acquire weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

"The events of Sept. 11 make it clearer than ever that a Cold War ABM treaty that prevents us from defending our people is outdated and, I believe, dangerous," Bush said.

But Putin repeated the Russian view that the treaty is "an important element of stability in the world" and said, "It would be difficult for me to agree [that] some terrorists will be able to capture intercontinental ballistic missiles and will be able to use them."

Nevertheless, Putin said, the two sides "have an understanding that we can reach agreements."

Yesterday's meeting with Putin was Bush's last major event at the weekend summit, his first overseas trip since the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

By the time the presidents met the news media, Bush had changed out of the colorful blue and white Chinese shirt he wore to one of the final summit sessions. At APEC summits, participants customarily don the native dress of the host country.

The war on terror has transformed the U.S.-Russian relationship, with Russia acquiescing in the presence of U.S. forces at bases in Uzbekistan, part of the former Soviet Union, and drawing closer to the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

Bush said that within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, Putin called to extend sympathy and support, and also performed another "act of friendship":

"He knew that the American military was moving to high-alert status. To simplify our situation, to show solidarity, he ordered Russia's military to stop a set of exercises that were getting under way."

Said Putin: "It is very important for everybody to know, if we started fighting terrorism, it should be completed, because otherwise, terrorists might have an impression that they are not vulnerable."

Putin's strong support for the U.S. campaign against al-Qaida is reported to have come despite pressure from the Russian military. This might have caused him to avoid showing much new flexibility on the issue of the ABM treaty and missile defense, according to one analyst.

"He's under considerable pressure from the military to show that this will bring Russia some results, some tangible benefits," said Angela Stent, a Russia specialist at Georgetown University who until recently worked on the State Department's policy planning staff. "It's hard for him to back down too much on the whole missile-defense question."

The two nations are working to reach agreement on new cuts in offensive weapons and, both hope, to settle a dispute dating to the 1980s over missile defense.

A major turning point on what both sides call a new "strategic framework" may occur in the middle of next month, when Putin visits Washington and then joins the president at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Reports last week suggested that Russia and the United States were close to a breakthrough. But although both leaders noted unspecified progress yesterday, missile defense and the ABM treaty remain tough nuts to crack.

"We've got work to do between now and Crawford," Bush acknowledged.

Bush may have adopted a softer line with Putin on the ABM treaty than some advisers intended.

Bush said he had not set a deadline for an agreement to be reached before the United States withdrew on its own from the treaty.

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