WASHINGTON -- Clinton administration officials confirmed yesterday that they have presented Moscow with a draft agreement allowing both the United States and Russia to deploy limited defenses against missile attacks.
The disclosure caused a flurry in Washington. A written proposal in the hands of the Russians suggests that President Clinton will push hard to amend a key arms-control treaty before he leaves office, disregarding those who believe he should leave negotiations to the next president.
Less controversial was the language of the documents, which echoes recent statements by Clinton administration officials calling for a shield against attacks by North Korea, Iraq and other "rogue" states.
The draft agreement would allow Russia and the United States each to deploy up to 100 missiles capable of shooting down an incoming rocket launched by another power. It also would provide for a second phase of negotiations, beginning as early as March, which could permit the building of another 100 missiles by each country.
The U.S. missiles would be based in Alaska.
The agreement would amend the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits all but limited missile defenses by Russia and the United States.
Russia, hobbled by a moribund economy and unable to afford to maintain its existing missiles, is opposed to modifications of the ABM treaty. Moscow also fears that a missile shield in the United States would blunt Russia's offensive nuclear power and weaken it strategically.
But America's ambassador to Moscow confirmed yesterday that talks with the Russians on altering the ABM accord are further along than had been known.
"We are involved in quite extensive discussions," James Collins told reporters at a breakfast meeting. "There is more sensitivity on the Russian side" to nuclear threats posed by nations other than the United States, he said.
Clinton is to meet in June in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. The existence of the draft agreement suggests that Clinton might try to use the summit to at least set in motion talks on changing the ABM treaty. But administration officials dismissed that suggestion.
"I wouldn't expect on that trip there will be any sort of breakthrough on this, but it's certainly high on the agenda," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
Collins said that "the discussions between the two presidents are going to be very important to determine whether this really goes toward negotiations."
Clinton and Putin are expected to discuss substantial cuts in offensive nuclear warheads and missiles. U.S. officials have said that Moscow may be open to a package deal involving ABM modification and offensive-missile reduction.
In advocating a limited defense against nuclear strikes, Clinton is not only going against Russia's official position. This week France and Canada criticized the proposal.
On the domestic side, chief among the critics is North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Helms and other congressional Republicans don't want to modify the ABM treaty. They want to scrap it and build a much more formidable anti-missile shield than that envisioned by Clinton.
Helms has promised to block any Clinton-negotiated arms control agreement. Any deal will be "dead on arrival" in Washington, Helms said this week, adding that new arms initiatives should be left to the next president.
At the same time, many fear that deploying even a limited anti-missile shield would spark a new arms race not only between Russia and the United States but including China as well. Besides building anti-missile defenses, nations would beef up their offensive nuclear capabilities in order to overcome the new defenses of their rivals, critics say.
"The Russians have known since we started this that limited defenses [in the United States] aren't a threat to them," said Jon Wolfsthal, an arms control specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"But the Russians are worried about the Chinese, because if the Chinese start building, and we give the Chinese reason to build a lot, then that gives the Russians something to worry about."
The Clinton administration argues that the nuclear threat from rogue states is growing and that the United States should try to amend the ABM treaty now. But some analysts argue that there's no hurry.
"You're rushing to judgment here," said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We haven't even decided if this system is going to work, and here we are negotiating with the Russians."
Clinton must decide by summer whether to proceed with an anti-missile system.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, an arms-control watchdog group, obtained a copy of the agreement through Russian sources and published it on its Web site yesterday. The New York Times reported on the proposal in yesterday's editions.
The negotiating documents disclosed yesterday assure Moscow that the proposed U.S. system "will be incapable of threatening Russia's strategic deterrence," said an explanatory memo attached to the draft agreement.