WASHINGTON — Russia’s refusal to negotiate changes in its 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the United States played a key role in President Clinton’s decision to delay the initial phases of construction for a national missile defense system, leading U.S. newspapers reported Sunday.

The Washington Post and The New York Times said Clinton’s move stemmed from Russia’s insistence that even initial construction of a missile shield would be in violation of the 1972 treaty.

The Post said Clinton’s decision had actually been shaped by events as far back as January when Moscow first made clear it would not be willing to amend the treaty.

The report quotes senior Clinton administration and Pentagon officials as saying any chances of amending the treaty disintegrated after Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president.

“I believe that when Boris Yeltsin was president, there was a decent chance of getting the deal we wanted in the course of this year,” a senior administration official said. “When Putin came in, that changed. Putin is, among other things, the un-Boris.”

The Post and the Times both said among all of Clinton’s advisers, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, the lone Republican in the president’s Cabinet, pressed hardest for Clinton to move forward with the missile shield, even though Cohen conceded that technological obstacles remained.

“Still, he (Cohen) felt we should proceed with construction to give Mr. Clinton’s successor a head start,” a senior defense official told the Times.

President Clinton said Friday more tests are needed, adding he is not convinced the technology is available to build an effective antimissile shield. He said he will leave it to his successor to decide whether to deploy a national missile defense system.

Putin warned Sunday that differences remained between Russia and the United States over nuclear weapons despite Clinton’s decision to put the NMD on hold.

Speaking before he left for Japan at the start of a week in which he will also hold talks with Clinton in New York, Putin said the decision had “been made exclusively in the interests of the United States.”

“I think this carefully balanced decision has been taken following Clinton’s consultations with the (Western) allies. I hope the Russian position is also being taken into account,” Interfax cited Putin as saying.

“Such a decision is important for international security and is enhancing the United States’ prestige,” he added.

The Post said the Friday speech allowed Clinton to dispose of the issue just days before the opening Tuesday of the United Nations’ Millennium Summit, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin and other dignitaries were expected to criticize Clinton over the missile defense program. The timing also meant that Clinton’s decision could be announced before the final stages of the presidential race , when any negative reactions might prove costly to Vice President Al Gore.

Putin said Sunday that delaying deployment of the missile shield instills hope for a constructive dialogue. He told ITAR-Tass that Clinton’s decision “took into account Russia’s stand.” Putin has said that Russia will continue to promote nuclear disarmament.

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