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US Russia nuclear deal worries some in Moscow

A US Russia nuclear deal on reducing their arsenals has received global praise. But some in Russia worry that President Medvedev may have allowed too much leeway for the US to develop missile defense systems.

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But President George W. Bush radically altered the strategic landscape, and deeply antagonized the Kremlin, by unilaterally pulling out of the ABM treaty in 2001.

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"We face a very different strategic landscape from that in which previous arms control accords were negotiated," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "America needs nuclear weapons less and less, because it is shifting its focus toward high-precision conventional weapons of both defensive and offensive types. Russia, on the other hand, depends increasingly upon its nuclear deterrent as the bedrock of our national security."

Shifting doctrine

Russia has recently altered its military doctrine to lower the threshold for use of nuclear weapons, even in a potential conflict within its own neighborhood. Experts say this growing reliance on nuclear forces suggests that the Russian military might resist further cuts, even though Medvedev has publicly signed on with Obama's campaign to abolish nuclear weapons entirely.

Experts say future relations between Moscow and Washington will depend heavily on the – as yet unknown – extent to which the US has compromised with Russian demands that the new START accord explicitly link the need to control defensive weapons with the deal to eliminate large numbers of offensive ones.

"Any treaty is a series of compromises, and it seems very likely that the US has accepted some sort of language connecting the two issues," says Mr. Konovalov. "But it seems very unlikely that the Americans would have agreed to anything binding, or which obligates them to curb their plans down the road."

Russia's State Duma last month passed a resolution warning it might refuse to ratify the START deal if it doesn't contain a strong mechanism leading to talks to limit missile defense and many conservatives have echoed that sentiment.

But the biggest question mark concerns Mr. Putin, who in December publicly criticized the START talks over what he viewed as US intransigence on the missile defense issue. As Putin and Medvedev head into what experts say is an under-the-carpet Kremlin jousting match over which of them will be the establishment candidate for president, in elections that are less than two years away, any strategic deal that appears to give too much away to the US could become a bone of contention.

During her visit to Moscow last week, Hillary Clinton altered her schedule to make time for a special meeting with Putin, in which experts say they discussed a range of issues, including START. Putin, whose brief as prime minister does not include foreign affairs, has argued that he has a right to deal with such matters because he is also leader of United Russia, the country's ruling political party.

"Putin is a very important player, and that's why he needs to be consulted on any issue," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "We've seen several instances where he's sent signals that he finds it irritating to be person No. 2 in any situation. But it's Medvedev who will sign the START accord with Obama next month. Putin hates to be person No. 2."