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Obama, Medvedev sign START treaty on nuclear weapons, but Russia is uneasy

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the START treaty on nuclear weapons today. While both hailed the missile reduction pact as a landmark, Russia is uneasy about its strategic future.

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He also made clear that Russia is not open to the further cuts in nuclear arsenals that the White House is already pressing for, and appeared to wonder out loud whether Obama's campaign for a nuclear weapons-free world wasn't part of an American plot to dominate the globe via its supremacy in conventional arms.

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"We believe the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons is very important," he said. "[But] world states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community."

Some experts say Lavrov was addressing domestic skeptics, including the powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who has publicly criticized the treaty.

"President Medvedev is very worried about possible domestic opposition to this treaty," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Several parties in the Duma, including United Russia [which is led by Putin], and the Communists, have expressed doubts. Medvedev sees a ratification battle looming."

Disappointed Moscow

But Lavrov's tough language also reflects Moscow's deep disappointment that the accord contains no firm link between the substantial cuts both sides will be making to their stocks of offensive atomic weapons and Russia's demand for follow-on negotiations to limit strategic missile defense. Many in Moscow fear that a US technological breakthrough in defensive weapons might undermine its aging strategic deterrent, which is heavily deployed on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"Though the exact text isn't known, it's clear that there is no direct connection between offensive and defensive weapons in the treaty," says Pavel Salin, an expert at the independent Center for Political Consulting in Moscow. "Russia faced a difficult dilemma: either to refuse to sign this document, or meet American interests under special conditions. It's no surprise that we're leaving ourselves a way out."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to confirm the lack of linkage, telling journalists Tuesday that "the START treaty is not about missile defense. It's about cutting the respective sizes of our arsenals – our strategic offensive weapons." She added that the US is committed to pursuing missile defense, but would "be working with the Russians to find common ground."