A successful missile defense test carried out by the Pentagon over the Pacific got a cool review Sunday from Russian officials, who accused the United States of threatening to undercut "the entire architecture" of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation treaties.
The statement by the Foreign Ministry reflected what appears to be a growing uneasiness that President Bush's defense and security team might have decided to build a missile defense system and abandon the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty even before promised consultations with Moscow have begun.
Russian concerns were exacerbated Thursday when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told a Senate committee that the U.S. might "bump up" against the ABM Treaty "in months rather than years" and that the Bush administration hopes soon to commence work on a missile defense test site in Alaska.
The controversial missile defense program got a boost Saturday evening when a Pentagon "kill vehicle" launched from the Marshall Islands destroyed a dummy missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif. The impact occurred 144 miles above the Pacific. Proponents said the test proved that a missile defense system is feasible.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Moscow insists on preserving the ABM Treaty, which it considers the foundation of all subsequent nuclear arms control pacts.
"The question arises once again: Why should the entire architecture of agreements in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation--and its cornerstone, the 1972 ABM Treaty--be put under threat?" ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said.
Russia has been waiting to begin in-depth consultations on the missile defense plan, as Bush promised Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at their first summit meeting, held last month in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
For weeks, Russian officials have been complaining that they cannot get from their U.S. counterparts a fix on the American plan and how it would impact the existing treaty, which was hammered out by the Soviet Union and the U.S. at a time when the countries were Cold War foes.
Yakovenko reiterated Sunday that Moscow is ready for "an early and substantive dialogue . . . based on the understandings reached in Ljubljana."
Speaking to reporters Friday evening, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said he intends to seek clarification Wednesday when he sees Secretary of State Colin L. Powell ahead of a Group of 8 industrialized nations gathering in Genoa, Italy. The topic also will be high on the agenda when Putin and Bush meet at that summit, which begins Friday.
Ivanov said the comments of Wolfowitz were disquieting, considering consultations have not yet begun in earnest.
"If the statements made by Mr. Wolfowitz at the hearing in the Senate were implemented in practice, they would significantly complicate the negotiations," Ivanov said. "But we hope that this is a position of Mr. Wolfowitz and not the U.S. administration."
Russian officials point out that the proposed missile defense system would not seriously deter Moscow's ability to strike the U.S. in the event of nuclear war, given that Russia has thousands of warheads that it could launch.
However, the officials argue that U.S. construction of a defense system could set off a destabilizing arms race among other nations in order to obtain the ability to overcome future U.S. defenses.