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Speechless in Moscow on U.S. missile defense

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MOSCOW — Russia stated officially on Friday that it is confused.

In anticipation of a controversial missile test set for Saturday, and responding to a series of high-level statements in Washington that the Bush administration is planning either to withdraw from, negotiate changes to or simply "bump up against" the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Russia's defense minister rhetorically threw up his hands on Friday, saying Moscow was unable to "say anything definite" about where things stand — strategically speaking.

"We are still oriented toward patient consultations and will conduct them" with the Bush administration on its plans to build missile defenses, Sergei Ivanov, the defense minister, told reporters. After reading press reports on what was said in Washington on Thursday by senior Bush aides, Ivanov said; "Some say they are withdrawing from the treaty. Others say they are not withdrawing. Still others say the ABM treaty will not be violated. Therefore, there is no point in reacting to such very contradictory statements."

He pointed out that President Vladimir Putin is to meet Bush for the second time at the Genoa summit meeting of the leading industrial nations next week, and he expressed the hope that afterward "there will be more certainty on this matter."

Meanwhile, technicians at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean will launch a pair of missiles toward a mutual collision in space that also could have far-reaching effects back on Earth.

If the target missile from Vandenberg is struck and obliterated by a high-tech "kill vehicle" launched from the atoll, the Bush administration will have a powerful new argument for its proposal to accelerate its controversial missile defense program. But if the projectiles streak untouched through the heavens, the program will come under new criticism — and its proposed funding could be cut.

To add to the drama, a failure would be the third in four flight tests. When the interceptor missed July 7, 2000, the Clinton administration decided against moving forward to deployment of the ground-based system it had worked on for eight years.

Although the Pentagon insists it will push ahead with its development work no matter what the outcome, "this test could definitely have a big political effect," said Tom Collina of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an arms control advocacy group.

That's because the flight test has come at an unusually sensitive moment.

The White House and the program's advocates are gearing up to fight in Congress for a $3 billion missile defense budget increase. They want to step up development from a pace of one or two $100 million tests each year, to as many as eight.

The critics want to scale back that 57 percent budget hike and, in particular, to block or delay construction of a missile defense test site in Alaska that could force the United States to withdraw from or attempt to revise the ABM Treaty with the Russians.

On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell, made public comments on the administration's plans to intensify its dialogue with Moscow on the ABM Treaty — particularly on how it might be modified to allow for accelerated tests on the defense system that Wolfowitz described in testimony before Congress.

The Russian reaction focused on the variances in tone and emphasis that Bush's aides placed on how they see the administration proceeding, including whether Washington intends to carry out a genuine dialogue with Moscow that would lead to negotiations to modify the ABM Treaty, or whether a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the accord is just around the corner.

Ivanov, who is Putin's closest adviser on strategic affairs, seemed at pains not to overreact, though Russian officials were surprised by the accelerating timetable in Washington. Just weeks after Bush and Putin agreed to begin a high-level dialogue on a new international security framework, the Pentagon was already unveiling plans in Congress to build a missile defense test site in Alaska this year.

The first reaction here was characteristically blunt and came from an anonymous, high-ranking Russian Defense Ministry official. "We will regard the first cubic meter of concrete poured on the launching pad on Alaska for interceptor missiles as formal American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty," he was quoted as saying.

In recent weeks Russian officials have been wondering what happened to the "Spirit of Ljubljana," the venue for the summit meeting in Slovenia where Bush pledged to dispatch Powell and Rumsfeld to open the new era of talks with Moscow. Those talks have yet to materialize, and Ivanov has been saying in private that he doubts they will occur this year, though it appears that Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, is due to travel to Moscow after the Genoa summit meeting.

Ivanov's remarks on Friday seemed an effort to contain any sense of contention until Putin and Bush have met. And in a blow to the hawkish generals in Ivanov's Defense Ministry, who often pre-empt the Kremlin in criticizing Washington, Ivanov on Friday dismissed Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the head of the military's international relations department, as part of a shake-up of the top leaders in the ministry.

Contributing: Los Angeles Times