Obama, Medvedev Aim to Advance Arms Control Talks, 'Reset' Bilateral Ties

Traditional matryoshka nesting dolls depicting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and President Obama are part of a street vendor's display in St. Petersburg.
Traditional matryoshka nesting dolls depicting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and President Obama are part of a street vendor's display in St. Petersburg. (By Dmitry Lovetsky -- Associated Press)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 6, 2009

MOSCOW, June 5 -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will try to break a deadlock in talks to replace a vital nuclear-arms-control treaty when they meet here Monday, with U.S. missile defense plans and Russian demands for sharper cuts in launchers presenting the key obstacles.

"Right now, there are very serious gaps in the Russian and American positions," said Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow, who has been monitoring the talks through Russian negotiators.

If the presidents emerge without the outline of a deal, it may be impossible to adopt an accord to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires in December, analysts say. That would unravel verification mechanisms that have been critical to reducing both countries' nuclear arsenals and could undermine global efforts against nuclear proliferation.

It would also cast a shadow over the three-day summit, as both leaders have made replacing the treaty, known as START I, the centerpiece of their efforts to "reset" bilateral relations badly strained during the Bush administration.

"If Obama leaves Moscow disillusioned, he may decide it's not worth the political capital, time and energy to deal with so-called defiant rogues in Moscow," said Dmitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington. The Russians, meanwhile, are inclined to believe "that not much can be accomplished with the United States," he said.

Gary Samore, an Obama aide responsible for issues of weapons of mass destruction, told reporters Sunday that he expected the presidents to announce progress on a treaty Monday but not a final deal. "The negotiators have narrowed the differences, identified key issues, and I think it will be possible for the presidents to have a good discussion and, hopefully, reach agreement" on some issues, he said.

Negotiators have tentatively agreed on a modest reduction in the 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads permitted under the Moscow Treaty signed in 2002, perhaps to about 1,500.

But there has been no breakthrough in the stalemate over a U.S. plan to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe to counter a potential threat from Iran. Russia says the shield would undermine its ability to deter an American nuclear strike, and Medvedev recently warned that Russia will not accept any treaty unless its concerns are addressed.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have balked at Moscow's insistence on steep cuts in the numbers of long-range missile launchers and heavy bombers that each side can keep.

START set a limit of 1,600 such "delivery systems" for each country, and U.S. negotiators have offered to reduce that to the range of 1,000 to 1,100. But Russia wants to set the ceiling closer to 600, Rogov said.

The demand reflects Russian anxiety about the Pentagon's ability to quickly rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal by taking warheads out of storage and putting them on missiles and bombers again.

The Russian military is also worried about U.S. plans to refit missiles and bombers with conventional payloads, which it fears could extend American military superiority and could be used to overwhelm Russia's nuclear forces.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company