U.S. optimistic about new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia

A silo once housing an ICBM with nuclear warheads is destroyed near LuVerne, N.D., in 2000 in compliance with the START treaty.
A silo once housing an ICBM with nuclear warheads is destroyed near LuVerne, N.D., in 2000 in compliance with the START treaty. (Nati Harnik/associated Press)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

After months of negotiations with Russia, Obama administration officials are hopeful about a breakthrough -- possibly this week -- that would enable the two sides to sign a successor to their most extensive nuclear weapons treaty before it expires Dec. 5.

The optimism stems from a trip to Moscow in late October by national security adviser James L. Jones, who gave his Kremlin counterpart a package of proposals for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, according to U.S. and Russian officials. Moscow has not yet formally responded, but high-level Russian officials have reacted positively, senior U.S. officials said.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in remarks released Saturday that both sides "have every chance to agree on a new treaty, determine new [weapons] levels and control measures and sign a legally binding document [by] the end of the year." With U.S. policymakers and the Pentagon united behind Jones's proposals, Kremlin policymakers have gone back to the Russian military to get its approval or perhaps recommendations for counterproposals.

Securing a replacement for the 1991 treaty is a critical first step in President Obama's ambitious global arms-control agenda. Analysts and lawmakers have watched nervously as the agreement's deadline approaches, fearing a lapse in the complex verification procedures that are credited with providing stability between the nuclear giants. Both sides have discussed leaving those procedures in place until a new pact goes into effect.

U.S. officials' optimism contrasted with concerns expressed recently by American and Russian analysts that the talks have not produced final agreement on key issues: limits on nuclear-capable launchers; verification procedures; U.S. proposals to put conventional warheads on strategic land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles; and missile defense systems. The United States remains reluctant to give much ground on a Russian request for strong language linking disarmament to missile defense.

The new START agreement will contain relatively modest cuts in the 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads allowed to each side under a June 2002 agreement between President George W. Bush and then-Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a summit in July, Obama and Medvedev agreed on a new ceiling of 1,500 to 1,675 for each side.

A more contentious issue has been reducing the number of nuclear-capable bombers and land- or submarine-based missiles, with the Russians pressing for deeper cuts than the U.S. side. The Russians have proposed that the current limit of 1,600 each be slashed to 500; U.S. negotiators have suggested 1,100. Jones's proposal was a "judicious compromise," a U.S. official said, without disclosing a figure. Outside speculation has put the number at about 700.

The Russians still want that total to include any strategic missile launchers that carry conventional rather than nuclear warheads, a position the U.S. negotiators may accept.

Another debate focuses on verification programs. The Russians have talked of halting U.S. inspections of their missile factories because they have no equal role in the United States, which is no longer building strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Although a new accord seems within reach by Dec. 5, it is still not likely to win ratification in the U.S. Senate for months. With that in mind, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) introduced a bill Thursday that would allow Obama to temporarily extend, on a reciprocal basis, privileges to Russian arms inspection teams that travel to the United States.

"Allowing a break in verification activities is not in the interest of the United States or Russia," Lugar said on the Senate floor.

Senior U.S. officials told The Washington Post that they also want to put in place a "bridge mechanism" when the treaty expires to allow for the continuation of inspections, exchanges of data, and notification about the testing and movement of weapons and other changes. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

The United States and Russia control more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, and both sides have said they hope that shrinking their stockpiles will inspire other nations to support tougher measures to prevent the spread of the deadly weapons to countries such as Iran.

A Russian response to Jones's proposals is expected soon, perhaps when both sides return to the negotiating table in Geneva on Monday.

"We hope that this will be the last round and that by December 5 we will have agreed on a new accord," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told the Interfax news agency, according to Agence France-Presse.

Ellen O. Tauscher, the undersecretary of state who oversees arms control and who accompanied Jones to Moscow, said, "There are issues that we have to work through, but there is also a path forward."

Even if a new treaty is signed soon, there is no chance it will be sent to the Senate for ratification before next year. Administration officials recognize that they have to prepare extensive backup material based on questions already raised by key Republicans, including Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who has been monitoring the talks.

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