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Key Item for Obama, Medvedev: New Arms Talks

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President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London on Wednesday. Both say they'll try to put a new nuclear arms reduction deal in place before the existing treaty expires in December. Video by AP

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

MOSCOW, March 31 -- For more than two decades, U.S. personnel have been posted outside an arms factory in the central Russian city of Votkinsk, stopping and scrutinizing any container leaving the facility big enough to carry a ballistic missile. Several times each month, American inspectors are granted access to silos and other sensitive sites across Russia to examine weapons and count warheads.

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These procedures are part of an elaborate set of verification measures that for nearly 15 years have been the foundation of U.S. and Russian efforts to cut the two countries' nuclear arsenals -- and that are set to stop in December with the expiration of the landmark 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Launching talks to replace this treaty, known as START I, is expected to top the agenda Wednesday in London when President Obama holds his first meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Both U.S. and Russian officials hope such negotiations would restore trust to strained bilateral relations and clear the way for a renewed global push to eliminate nuclear weapons, a goal that both Obama and Medvedev have endorsed. But there are significant obstacles to a new agreement.

In 2002, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Treaty of Moscow pledging to reduce each nation's strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads by 2012. But the accord relies on START I verification measures. A START II pact was reached in 1993 but never ratified, although both countries continued to reduce the size of their arsenals.

The two sides will need to decide how much further to reduce, whether to continue to impose limits on missiles and bombers in addition to warheads, and whether to cover tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons, and warheads in storage, for the first time. Russia has also insisted that the future of U.S. missile defense plans be included in discussions.

It took U.S. and Soviet negotiators nearly 10 years to hammer out START. The Obama administration and the Kremlin have less than nine months to write its successor.

One key dispute is how the weapons should be counted. The United States has sought to count only its "operationally deployed" arsenal of 2,200 warheads, while excluding those that are in reserve. But the Kremlin has insisted on the START practice of counting each missile and bomber as if it carried a fixed, usually maximum number of warheads.

Russian officials say the question is important because the United States has been removing warheads and storing them without destroying the missiles, submarines and bombers that carried them. As a result, they say, the U.S. arsenal can be quickly rebuilt.

Russia is even more worried about U.S. plans to convert these weapons to carry conventional payloads, said Alexei Arbatov, a former member of parliament who heads the Center for International Security in Moscow. The Pentagon has argued that it needs such weapons to fight terrorists and rogue states, but they would widen the gap between Russian and U.S. conventional capabilities and could still be used to destroy Russian nuclear forces.

"This is what the Russian military is most worried about," Arbatov said. "I think it will be the most difficult issue to resolve."

Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister responsible for the negotiations, said Russia might be willing to accept the U.S.-favored count of deployed warheads, as long as the new treaty also included limits on the delivery vehicles for them. "We need more than one ceiling," he said. "It's meaningless just to count warheads when you don't know what happens to the means of delivery."

Some Russian analysts have suggested that limits be set so that neither country could easily increase its arsenal of deployed warheads by more than 30 percent, a provision that could force the Pentagon to perform expensive modifications on its submarines or eliminate much of its land-based missile fleet.

"If Russia were really consistent, then the U.S. would be in big trouble," said Pavel Podvig, an arms-control scholar at Stanford University. "You'd really have to cut submarines, blow up missile silos and destroy missiles. The good news for the U.S. is that Russia has never been consistent and it could be reasonably flexible on this."

At the same time, Podvig said, Russia will try to eliminate a START provision that prohibits it from deploying a new, multiple-warhead missile system that is scheduled for deployment in December.

Analysts said a compromise seems possible to satisfy Russian objections to U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. John R. Bolton, a U.N. ambassador and arms-control official for Bush, said the START measures should be preserved without further nuclear cuts, which he accused the Obama administration of pursuing "without a sound assessment of national security." He said Russia's desire to limit strategic arms even if they don't carry nuclear warheads "should be a non-starter," because such weapons make the use of nuclear weapons less likely.

Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute and coordinator of Global Zero, an international campaign to eliminate nuclear arms, said Russia and the United States need to replace START and cut their arsenals to as low as 1,000 warheads each to stem rising anxiety among nonnuclear countries and maintain pressure on nations such as Iran and North Korea.

But he said any new treaty that required steep cuts in strategic arms without covering tactical nuclear weapons would face "a royal ratification battle" in the U.S. Senate. Russia is believed to have as many as 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons; the United States has about 500.

Russia has refused to open talks on tactical weapons, saying the 200 U.S. tactical warheads at NATO bases in Europe should be withdrawn first. European officials have resisted such a move, but Obama might be willing to reconsider because of concerns about tactical warheads being lost or stolen. "The threat of nuclear terrorism has eclipsed other nuclear issues," Blair said.


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