US and Russia to miss deadline, again, on renewed START treaty

Shrinking their nuclear arsenals is not the issue, as US and Russia halt talks on the next START treaty until after the holidays. Verification and inspection regimens look to be the sticking points.

By , Staff writer

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    US President Barack Obama (r.) talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on December 18 in Copenhagen, on the sidelines of the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference. The US and Russia halted talks on the next START treaty until after the holidays.
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The United States and Russia are about to miss a second deadline for replacing a landmark 1991 treaty by which the two cold war powers began reducing their formidable nuclear arsenals.

Both sides continue to say that an ambitious replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, will be reached “soon.” But negotiators' failure to agree by the time START 1 expired Dec. 5, and now by the end of the year as both nuclear powers subsequently pledged, suggests that traditional sticking points such as robust verification regimens are more serious than the two sides had let on.

The trouble in reaching an accord on a START 1 follow-on may also portend a steep climb ahead for President Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons – a goal whose next way station is expected to be a summit on international nuclear security that Mr. Obama has called for April in Washington.

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Negotiators for the US and Russia, who have been meeting in Geneva, broke off their talks for the Christmas break, delaying any accord on a follow-on to START until at least early next year. Meeting in Copenhagen last week on the sidelines of international climate change talks, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed optimism that remaining obstacles to an accord would be overcome in what Obama called “a timely fashion.”

In the meantime, the two countries have agreed to honor the terms of the original treaty until a new one is signed.

Verification and inspections the sticking points

Officials from both countries say the last-minute problems center not so much on numbers – the new lower ceiling of strategic nuclear weapons the accord would establish – but rather on issues like verification and the intrusiveness of inspections for confirming treaty compliance. Russia maintains that the verification regime of the original START was too onerous and is no longer needed.

Meeting last summer in Moscow, Obama and Mr. Medvedev agreed that the new START would reduce each side’s strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 – an impressive number given that the first START accord reached by President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for each country to reduce its warheads to about 6,000.

But the numbers don’t appear to be the sticking point. This week, Russia’s top military officer, the equivalent of the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Moscow that Russia wants “to sign an equal, mutually acceptable treaty.” But Gen. Nikolai Makarov said any new accord must break the pattern of the first START, which he said was “unfair to Russia.”

While he did not elaborate, Makarov indicated that the exchange of missile-launch data remains a point of contention. Other Russian officials have said verification obligations need to be simplified.

Some American experts counter that a treaty mandating significantly lower weapons numbers makes verification more, not less, important.

“Verification actually starts to become more important because the numbers are lower, and because in this treaty we are going to be counting launchers,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

Deadline diplomacy a mistake?

Mr. Sokolski credits Obama with adopting an ambitious nuclear nonproliferation and security agenda, but he also says “diplomacy by deadline has not been a good way to go – you end up losing all leverage.”

The difficulties of forging a START II treaty suggest, too, that the Obama administration’s ambitious plans for following up with talks aimed at reducing the two countries’ tactical or short-range nuclear weapons – weapons not addressed in START – may be a bridge too far, Sokolski says, especially in a midterm election year that may prove to be rough for the president's party.

“I don’t doubt they should try,” he says, “but the trouble they’re having now tells me it would only get a lot harder – especially in a political year in the US.”

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