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US prods Russia on missile defense

Seeking protection from 'rogue' states, US wants to build

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Capitalizing on a post-Kosovo crisis thaw in relations, the United States is pursuing at the highest levels a drive to advance key arms-control initiatives with Russia.

The aim is to win Russian assent to a phased deployment by the US of a defense system against limited missile attacks by "rogue" states like North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. The US is also exploring with Russia a new accord on deeper cuts in the thousands of nuclear warheads they still keep on hair triggers.

The urgency of the effort stems from presidential elections both countries hold next year. President Clinton is also to decide next June - if the technology is proven by then - whether to deploy a limited national missile-defense (NMD) system. To do so without Russian assent would mean a destabilizing US "breakout" from a 27-year-old arms-control pact; not moving ahead could extend US vulnerability and give Republicans fodder to attack Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid.

The administration's push faces major hurdles. Moscow is dead set against US plans to build an NMD system, saying it would tip the strategic balance. The GOP-led Congress, meanwhile, bitterly opposes Mr. Clinton's gradual deployment plan, demanding the complete system be built as soon as possible. Finally, US and Russian elections will bring new leadership with different arms-control policies.

It therefore remains uncertain if Clinton will leave office with a major nuclear arms-reduction pact as part of his legacy.

The new US effort stems from a June meeting at which Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to discuss changing the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) to allow the US to build a limited NMD system. They also agreed to look deeper at nuclear-weapons reductions under a third Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START III).

Talking it out

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