President Bush pressured Moscow on Monday to agree to reduce nuclear weapons and rethink its opposition to a U.S. missile shield, but said he is prepared to develop a missile defense without Russian accord.
One day after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, with Bush at his side after two hours of meetings, disclosed that the United States and Russia would negotiate offensive and defensive weapons in tandem, Bush displayed an impatience to get moving.
"I have told President Putin that time matters; that I want to reach an accord sooner, rather than later; that I'm interested in getting something done with him," Bush said at a news conference after meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"But make no mistake about it," he said, adamantly warning that the United States is prepared to abandon the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty that blocks nearly all missile defense systems. "I would rather others come with us, but I feel so strongly and passionately on the subject about how to keep the peace in the 21st century, that we'll move beyond, if need be."
At the same time, he spoke optimistically about his session with Putin at the close of a summit in the Italian port of Genoa of the leading industrial democracies and Russia.
"My friend has been quick to grasp the notion," Bush said, that a changing world, with changing security requirements, dictates a new look at defensive systems.
However, Bush did nothing to clear up such ambiguities as what sort of cuts negotiators would consider in U.S. and Russian arsenals, or when negotiations would begin.
On Monday, each side claimed to have made headway in swaying the other.
In Moscow, Putin told the Russian Cabinet that he had made considerable progress in the talks with Bush over a missile defense system, which Russia opposes. But Putin said there had been no breakthrough.
In Rome, meanwhile, Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, suggested that the president is bringing Putin around to the view that the missile defense program, if it produces a functioning weapon, is not a threat to Russia.
Rather, U.S. officials say, it is geared toward protecting the United States from attack by North Korea or another nation with a limited nuclear arsenal, and thus would do little to alter the nuclear balance between Moscow and Washington.
"I think President Putin is beginning to understand that," Rice said.
Russian officials contested reports in the Russian press that Putin had in effect surrendered his country's opposition to the missile shield and had given up attempts to maintain the ABM treaty.
Putin told his Cabinet that both sides confirmed their adherence to the 1972 treaty. Washington, though, has said it is willing to renegotiate the treaty, which it sees as a relic of the Cold War and no longer applicable in a greatly changed security environment. If this cannot be accomplished, the Bush administration has said it will abandon the treaty.
Rice presented the talks as part of an emerging relationship between an evolving Russia and a new administration in Washington. The two countries also completed an economic agreement Sunday that is intended to make it easier for American businesses to operate in Russia. The national security advisor used the mild-sounding phrase "defense planning talks" to describe the discussions on weapon reductions, steering clear of any suggestion that the two countries were embarking on complex, years-long treaty negotiations leading to a more encompassing "arms control regime" suggestive of the tensions of the Soviet era.
She said the administration was uncertain what form an agreement on reducing long-range nuclear missiles and building a defense system would take. She held out the possibility that it would not result in a formal treaty requiring Senate approval.
To a large extent, the urgency in getting the talks moving stems from the administration's concern that aggressive testing of the components of a missile defense shield will violate the ABM treaty, and that staying within the confines of the treaty will keep researchers from considering all options.
And then there's the political calendar.
"Let's be realistic; we are in office for hopefully several years, but presidents have only a limited amount of time to leave a legacy to their successors," she said. At six months into a first term, that was perhaps the earliest reference to a president's role in history.
Times staff writer Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this report.