President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday reiterated an offer to eliminate at least three-quarters of Russia's 6,000 nuclear warheads.
But he said his proposal for dramatic arms cuts depends on the United States' not unilaterally withdrawing from the 29-year-old Antiballistic Missile Treaty because of President Bush's plan for a U.S. national missile defense system.
Putin made the remarks after meeting with visiting French President Jacques Chirac. In their talks, Putin sought to enlist France and other European nations to rally around the 1972 ABM treaty, which Bush sees as an outdated obstacle to his missile defense project.
"Russia welcomes the reciprocal readiness of the United States of America to reduce strategic offensive weapons," Putin said. "We are ready for a further verifiable reduction of strategic weapons to the level of 1,500 warheads or even less. I would like to stress, a verifiable reduction."
He made a similar offer to President Clinton in November, tying reductions in Russia's nuclear arsenal to continued adherence to the ABM treaty and saying the reduction could be achieved by 2008.
Any Russian reduction would be "closely linked to maintaining the ABM treaty," Putin said Monday, sitting beside Chirac in one of the Kremlin's most prestigious reception salons, St. Vladimir's Hall.
Russia asserts that the ABM treaty is the cornerstone of global security--enshrining the arrangement by which, if either Russia or the United States dared to start a nuclear war, it would face certain retaliation and be destroyed.
If the United States abrogates the treaty and builds missile defenses unilaterally, Russia argues, it could also set off a renewed arms race as countries look for ways to overcome the U.S. defense advantage.
France has been cool to Bush's missile defense plans. After their meeting, Putin and Chirac issued a joint statement saying their nations have a duty to help maintain the world's nuclear balance. The statement also urged the convening of an international conference on nuclear proliferation issues.
Besides the carrot of sharp arms reduction if Washington adheres to the ABM treaty, Russia has been signaling a stick: It says that if the United States violates the ABM treaty, Russia might begin deploying multiple warhead systems on its nuclear rockets.
Multiple warheads were reduced by the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, and were to be banned altogether under START II, a 1993 pact that was ratified by Russia only last year. Now Russia argues that those treaties will be meaningless if the ABM treaty falls by the wayside.
Russian officials from Putin on down have been saying that multiple warheads would be the easiest, and cheapest, way for Russia to thwart any U.S. missile defense program. Putin said it would take "50, if not 100, years" for the United States to construct a defense against such a weapon.
The head of Russia's strategic missile forces, Nikolai Solovtsov, was quoted as saying that Russia's newest missile, known in the United States as the SS-27, can carry as many as three warheads and is "ready for duty."
To underscore its seriousness, Russia last week test-fired an older missile, the SS-19, which officials said was capable of carrying six warheads. Authorities said they were pleased with the test, which took place at the Russian space facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The missile's builder was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying the SS-19 would be ideal for "the country's strategic tasks in contemporary conditions."
Some U.S. experts believe that the deployment of multiple warheads alone would not significantly undermine U.S. security.
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey wrote last week that even if Russia used multiple warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, it could not stop America from answering a first strike because the United States has much improved the dependability of submarine-based nuclear weapons.