By Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 27, 2010; A02
President Obama announced a major new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty Friday, gaining a critical victory as U.S. diplomats head into an intense period of international meetings aimed at keeping the devastating weapons out of the hands of rogue states and terrorists.
Just days after the new pact is signed April 8, Obama will host perhaps the biggest summit ever in Washington, to urge countries to lock down loose nuclear material. A few weeks later, the U.S. government will try to strengthen the world's bedrock agreement limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
But if the president has gained momentum on pushing his nuclear agenda globally, he still may face a fight getting the 10-year Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, through the Senate this year. The deal with Russia will need Republican backing to get the 67 votes required for ratification.
Arms-control experts said the main virtue of the new pact was that it would allow the two countries that own nearly 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons to continue verifying each other's stockpiles. But as details emerged Friday, it appeared the new treaty might make lower-than-advertised changes in each country's arsenals. While U.S. officials touted a 30 percent lowering of the ceiling for warheads and bombs deployed for long-range missiles, arms-control experts warned that the new pact used different counting rules than previous ones.
The new limit of 1,550 deployed warheads could represent an actual decline of only about 100 or 200 weapons -- a reduction of only as much as 13 percent -- from the comparable figure under the previous treaty, said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
A White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, cautioned that the exact reductions had not been determined.
Each side will also reduce to 700 the number of deployed missiles and bombers that can launch nuclear weapons. That represents a reduction of about 100 to 200 from current U.S. levels, according to estimates by experts.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) acknowledged Friday that Senate consideration will take place in a strained legislative environment but pleaded with his colleagues to set their broader political agendas aside.
"I know there has been a partisan breakdown in recent years, but we can renew the Senate's bipartisan tradition on arms control and approve ratification of this treaty in 2010," said Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), a prominent moderate, called for quick ratification.
Several Republicans who have expressed concern about the treaty said they would wait to see it before issuing judgment. One senior Republican source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the key to approving the agreement would be the strength of its verification procedures.
Negotiations on START had bogged down in recent months, raising fears among arms-control activists that the president would be dealt a setback as U.S. diplomats went into critical global meetings on nonproliferation.
Negotiators said they ran into impasses over Russia's demands for less intrusive verification rules and its unwillingness to share the same amount of telemetry data on its missile tests, according to people familiar with the talks. In addition, the two sides clashed over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe. Washington says that system is aimed at Iran, but the Russians view it as a threat on their borders.
A phone call between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Dec. 4, the day before the old treaty expired, failed to produce momentum toward an agreement that U.S. officials had hinted might be coming.
"There were some concerns among the Russian Defense Ministry that things might not have been going the way they wanted," said one person familiar with the December discussions. "Medvedev heard the concerns of his top defense folks and realized more work needed to be done."
On the American side, negotiators were aware that any significant limits on verification or the U.S. missile shield would be unacceptable to Senate Republicans and the Pentagon. The U.S. side appears to have largely won the battle over missile defense, with a mention of it in the treaty's preamble but no new limits imposed on the American system, officials said.
American officials said Obama and Medvedev talked 10 times on the phone and five times in person throughout the past year, often at times when the negotiations in Geneva had bogged down.
The White House official said the turning point came in a testy conversation between Obama and Medvedev in late February.
"The Russians were pushing for constraints on missile defense to be incorporated into the treaty. The president said that was simply unacceptable," the official said.
Obama indicated he was willing to walk away from the treaty, the official said. "That was the breaking point."
The Russians backed off, and Obama dispatched Ellen Tauscher, the undersecretary of state for arms control, to Geneva with longtime State Department arms-control expert James Timbie. Tauscher helped spark the final push toward agreement.
"It was like a light switch," one senior administration official said.
Tauscher, a former Wall Street investment banker, said in an interview: "The test for me isn't the deal you're doing. It's whether you want to do another deal. And we have people who want to do another deal -- on both sides."
However, analysts say any new negotiations seeking deeper cuts will probably be far more difficult, with disputes over such thorny issues as missile defense, Russia's advantage in short-range nuclear weapons, and the superiority of U.S. conventional forces.
As a result, said Pavel Podvig, a scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, the new treaty signed in April could be the last to emerge from Cold War-style negotiations, with each side seeking to balance its forces against the other's.
Alexander Konovalov, president of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Assessments, said any further nuclear cuts would face resistance in the Russian military, which believes Moscow needs a strong nuclear arsenal to compensate for the weakness of its conventional forces.
"It's simply fear," he said. "The military world is very conservative, and it is difficult to change their way of thinking."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and correspondent Philip P. Pan in Moscow contributed to this report.