President Bush said yesterday that U.S. and Soviet negotiators meeting in Washington this week were unable to resolve disputes over a new strategic arms accord, which sources said raised further questions about whether a Bush summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, planned for Feb. 11-13, will be postponed.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh will meet today to discuss what one senior U.S. official described as a likely postponement of the summit for several reasons including the Persian Gulf War, U.S. concern about the Soviet crackdown on Baltic independence movements and the apparent arms control deadlock.
Bush declined to answer directly questions about a postponement of the summit, planned for Moscow, in a brief White House news conference, saying he was first eager to hear the results of the Baker-Bessmertnykh weekend meeting. But he made it clear that the timing would be discussed by the two officials.
Bush said, "You may recall, this was to be a summit at which we were going to sign an arms control agreement," the so-called START, or strategic arms reduction treaty, that has been negotiated by the two nations for more than eight years. "I am told we aren't there yet. So we've got to see. There's a war on in the Persian Gulf," he said.
Bush's remarks came as Soviet officials in Moscow indicated they prefer not to hold an abbreviated summit in a neutral country without signing the START accord. Some U.S. officials have said that approach would allow Bush to press U.S. concerns over Moscow's policy on the Baltics directly with Gorbachev.
"We want it in Moscow," a Soviet official told Reuter. "Bush may not want to go far from Washington because of the war, but in our situation Gorbachev would not want to be far from Moscow either."
Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Obukhov, chief arms negotiator Yuri Nazarkin and other Soviet officials have been in Washington since Monday meeting with Undersecretary of State Reginald Bartholomew, chief U.S. negotiator Richard Burt and various U.S. specialists. Only a handful of treaty issues remain to be settled, U.S. officials said, and these discussions were to provide a final push to that end.
But the senior U.S. official said four days of talks produced "zero progress," partly because neither side acted as if the summit date was genuine. He and others predicted the summit likely will not be held until after the gulf war is over.
One of the disputed issues on strategic, or long-range, nuclear arms involves whether Moscow should be allowed to transfer its SS-18 missiles from the republic of Kazakhstan to silos in the Russian Republic if the Kazakhstan parliament votes to secede from the Soviet Union or become a "nuclear-free zone," U.S. officials said.
The Bush administration opposes the idea because it has been trying to limit or abolish the SS-18 missiles. Allowing them to be transferred if they are forced from Kazakhstan, a hotbed of Soviet anti-nuclear sentiment, would give them "a new lease on life," according to one U.S. official.
The negotiators also have been unable to resolve disputes over the monitoring of electronic transmissions by ballistic missiles during test flights, potential Soviet inspection of the U.S. B-2 "stealth"strategic bomber and reductions in the number of warheads that can be carried by ballistic missiles, according to U.S. officials and independent experts.
"Once Bush makes it clear he wants a summit, it should be fairly easy for negotiators to resolve the remaining issues," said Dunbar Lockwood, senior analyst at the private Arms Control Association here. Without such a goad, there is little reason for the U.S. and Soviet military establishments to reach an accommodation, he said.
U.S. officials said the talks were complicated by the unexpected resignation last month of Bessmertnykh's predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, shortly after he and Baker had settled key arms control issues at a meeting in Houston. "We have since spent a lot of time trying to nail down those understandings" in the formal treaty talks without success, a U.S. official said.
State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said yesterday that Baker would begin the meeting today by expressing U.S. concerns over the Soviet crackdown in Latvia and Lithuania, which has led to at least 18 deaths.
Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.