WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is proposing to Russia that it clear a legal path for an elaborate anti-missile system to shield the United States from an attack from the Middle East.
It would be the second phase in a program that requires modifying the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia so far has refused, warning that changes could touch off an arms race, but its negotiators have been willing to talk about the plan.
The first phase, as outlined to The Associated Press on Friday by a senior U.S. official, would involve 100 launchers and new radar. President Clinton is expected to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to go along with amending the treaty to legalize the limited defense system when the two leaders meet in Moscow on June 4-5.
Deployment is envisaged for 2005. The shield would be designed for protection from attack from Asia. North Korea, at this point, is considered the mostly likely Asian country to attack U.S. targets.
The second phase, involving additional interceptors and radar and a second deployment site, would rely on an orbiting satellite system that is not due to be completed before 2010, said the senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As a result, the administration, while notifying Russian officials of the program, is leaving negotiations over the details of the second phase to its successor, the official said. That phase is focused on threats from the Middle East. Iran already has been identified as a potential attacker.
Together, ''this will be enough to knock out several dozen warheads ... but inadequate to counter a large Russian counter-strike,'' according to papers that the private Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported were drafts of U.S. proposals.
The statement appeared designed to assure Russia that the U.S. program would not neutralize Russia's nuclear arsenal.
At the same time, however, the administration told the Russians that U.S. nuclear forces would be on constant alert or on crisis alert ''to deliver many hundreds of warheads in response to any assailant,'' according to the scientists' account.
The United States and Russia have begun negotiations on a new treaty to set a new and lower ceiling of 2,000 to 2,500 for their long-range nuclear weapons stockpiles.
Even so, Russia and the United States could deploy more than 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads for the next decade and thereafter, according to the draft.
Administration officials said they could not confirm that the texts distributed in the bulletin were accurate.
Spurgeon Keeny, president of the private Arms Control Association, called the documents extremely disturbing and said they indicated Clinton had already made a decision to deploy a missile defense system.
Also, Keeny said in an interview, they suggested Russia could count on keeping 1,500 to 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on alert indefinitely against a U.S. missile defense system.
The U.S. program, particularly the second phase, appears to be clearly in conflict with the ABM Treaty, which limited defenses on the theory a potential attacker would be inclined to hold its fire if was exposed to devastating retaliation.
Russian negotiators have exchanged their own ideas with American counterparts about how to respond to a missile threat, the senior U.S. official said. But the Russians have not talked about amending the treaty, which would be required to implement both steps.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said his nation strongly objected to the proposed treaty changes and is prepared to counter any expansion of an anti-missile defense system in the United States.
''No doubt, this is a very bad scenario, but we are ready for it,'' Ivanov said in an interview published today in the newspaper Novye Izvestia. Russia, he said, ''has the money and capability for that, and the Americans know it.''
He did not spell out exactly how Moscow would respond to the deployment of an expanded U.S. missile defense, but said it would be ''not by political, but other means.''
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