AP Diplomatic WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States and Russia would cut the number of nuclear warheads by about two-thirds, a U.S. official said Thursday, under an agreement being discussed before President Bush and President Vladimir Putin meet in two weeks.
The reductions are intended to ease Russia's concerns about U.S. missile defense tests now barred by a 1972 arms control treaty.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is mediating a dispute over what to do with the ABM treaty in exchange for the nuclear cutbacks. Rice argues that the treaty can be amended to allow the administration to test and develop the missile defense system -- at least in the short term. Others, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, are more inclined to scuttle the pact that Bush calls a Cold War-era relic.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov were holding arms control talks Thursday at the State Department.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a consensus is emerging to slowly reduce the number of strategic warheads to between 1,750 and 2,250 from the current level of 6,000 if that would entice Putin to allow for missile shield tests.
That is the range being suggested by State Department and Defense Department analysts, but the official stressed that Bush has not signed off on numbers, which could change during pre-summit negotiations.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "has not made a decision about what the appropriate numbers should be."
Both sides have decided they need fewer long-range warheads than piled up in a process that continued even after the Cold War ended. Russia has suggested a lower ceiling of 1,500 to 2,000 warheads.
Ivanov's one-day visit to Washington could improve chances for concluding an agreement during talks Bush and Putin are to hold Nov. 13-15 in Washington and on Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Late Wednesday, Ivanov said the two nations need to find a way to maintain stability as they move toward a new status quo.
"We will also discuss issues in the fight against terrorism and how we can bolster our partnership," Ivanov said.
The two sides are closer to agreement on weapons cutbacks than on missile defense.
Bush plans to erect a shield against attack by smaller states with fledgling missile capabilities and by terrorist groups. Putin is leery of scrapping the 1972 U.S.-Soviet treaty that prohibits a nationwide defense system for either the United States or Russia.
Critics say an anti-missile shield will only encourage potential aggressors to develop more dangerous nuclear weapons with unorthodox delivery systems to get through the U.S. defense.
Unprecedented cooperation from Russia in the U.S. campaign against terrorism could help the two leaders come to terms.
Otherwise, Bush has says he's ready to exercise his right to pull out of the treaty if he doesn't get his way with Putin.
Traditional diplomatic caution keeps American officials from predicting success in Bush's quest for leeway to proceed with a limited defense against missile attack and Putin's hope for substantial reductions in long-range nuclear arsenals.
"We will reach agreements with the Russians on what we can reach agreements on," John Bolton, the undersecretary of state in charge of arms control questions, said Wednesday ahead of Ivanov's arrival. Bolton has made four trips to Moscow during the administration's first 10 months for talks on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.
"It would be premature to be optimistic or pessimistic," he said.
Still, Bolton and other administration officials are having trouble containing sunny expectations for the Bush-Putin talks.
Leaders are supposed to be driven by national interests, not personal relations. But there was noticeable improvement in the Bush-Putin personal chemistry in their two meetings before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Then the curve shot upward as Putin called Bush to pledge his support -- the first foreign leader to get in touch -- and followed by helping in the U.S.-led coalition's campaign to uproot the al-Qaida terror network's Afghanistan headquarters.
Their meeting in Shanghai 10 days ago accelerated the momentum. According to the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, it "opened the way for a possible agreement, perhaps even as early as Putin's visit to the United States, on ... issues relating to strategic offensive and defensive arms."
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Wednesday, after a meeting in Moscow with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, that Russia has no plans to widen its participation in the anti-terror coalition.
"Russia has long ago determined its position and its level of participation," he said. That will not change "irrespective of how the operation proceeds," he said.
Last week, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld ordered a halt to elements of U.S. tests that might violate the 1972 pact.
Besides the Powell-Ivan Ivanov meeting in Washington, Rumsfeld is going to Moscow to confer with his counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, this weekend . And Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage conferred with Russian officials in Moscow on Thursday on the war in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the touchiest item on the agenda will be Bush's attempt to try again to persuade Putin to cut off the spread of sophisticated technology and conventional weapons to Iran.
------On the Net: State Department's arms control desk: http://www.state.gov/t/