Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday clearly rejected a U.S. plan to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic missile treaty, but said he was nonetheless hopeful the world's biggest nuclear powers can agree on more weapons cutbacks.
"You know of our attitude toward the ABM treaty," Putin told reporters Monday before meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Kremlin. "For us, it's unconditionally linked with both the Start II and Start I treaties. I would like to underline that."
It was not the first time the Russian leader had expressed his opposition to the mutual abrogation of the ABM Treaty. But U.S. officials had hoped Rumseld might convince Putin and other top Russians to change their minds.
That apparently did not happen.
After the leaders' two-hour meeting, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was asked by a reporter whether Rumsfeld had successfully convinced him ABM had outlived its usefulness.
"I'm afraid not," he replied, speaking in English.
Speaking in Russian through a translator, he added, "We still think the ABM treaty is one of the major important elements of the complex of international treaties."
Reiterating an announcement he and Bush made at last month's meeting in Italy, Putin said Russia is willing to work out an agreement on the downsizing of nuclear arsenals.
But Putin added that he's waiting for the United States to respond to several critical concerns Russia has on the issue — including the extent and timing of the reduction and verification measures.
Ivanov emphasized Russia's unwillingness to abandon the ABM treaty. "We feel no compunction to leave one or any other treaty or accord which we currently have signed," he said.
Over meals and in meetings, Rumsfeld has been trying to persuade Putin to accept Bush's campaign on missile defense.
On his first visit to Moscow since taking office in January, Rumsfeld began a 14-hour day of diplomacy Monday by fielding questions from Russian journalists.
One reporter asked him what the Bush administration believed should be the minimum number of offensive nuclear weapons to maintain.
Rumsfeld said he planned to recommend a specific number to Bush within a month or two, once he gets more information on longer-term issues — such as how to maintain the reliability and safety of the existing nuclear stockpile and how to replace weapons that go bad.
Rumsfeld made clear, however, that Bush would significantly reduce the current level of about 7,200 weapons. "We're going to do it regardless of what Russia does," he said.
The latest talks originally were to last two days, but Rumsfeld managed to condense them into a single day.
Although missile defense is a key issue on Rumsfeld's agenda in Moscow, he said the administration's main aim is to establish a new, broader relationship with Russia: one that brings it closer to the Western community of democracies and farther from communist nations like North Korea and Cuba.
"For that country to be seen as an environment that is hospitable for investment by Russians and investment by everyone else in the world, we have to refashion the political and economic, as well as the security, relationship," Rumsfeld told reporters flying with him to Moscow.
He said it is unrealistic to expect Russia to retreat anytime soon from its position of opposing the U.S. plan to deploy defenses against long-range missiles.
"It's a difficult road to travel," he said, referring to efforts to change the Russians' thinking.
Talks Monday grew out of Bush's July meeting with Putin in Italy, in which they agreed to pursue parallel discussions on missile defense and nuclear force reductions.
At the time, it appeared the Russians might be warming to Bush's view that missile defense testing and deployment should not be limited by Cold War-era arms control treaties.
Since then, however, there has been little indication of movement toward the president's goal of getting Russia to agree on a mutual withdrawal from the ABM treaty. That pact prohibits the kind of broad missile defense Bush wants the United States to have as soon as the technology is ready.
The president contends the system is needed to protect the U.S. and its allies from missiles that might be launched by Iraq, North Korea or other countries regarded as rogue states.
Rumsfeld said the administration is trying to forge a broader relationship with Russia and that this cannot be done quickly.
"It is not something that just happens," he said, considering the two countries were enemies during the Cold War for more than four decades and still harbor some suspicions of each other. "It takes some time."
Rumsfeld said he was confident that the U.S. view on the need for missile defenses will prevail eventually.
"If you look ahead 10 years ahead, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the people of Russia had become fans of missile defense," he said. "People's attitudes about this are going to change."
The basis of Russia's opposition is a concern that scrapping the ABM treaty could unravel the whole fabric of international arms control, which in turn could mean that U.S. missile defenses might one day undercut Russia's own nuclear deterrent.
The Associated Press contributed to this report