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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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The first round of superpower arms control was opened with a deal to limit the development of defensive weapons, a technology that was then in its infancy. For three decades the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty acted as the keystone of subsequent accords that slashed superpower atomic arsenals from a total of around 40,000 strategic and tactical warheads in the early 1970's to a still-apocalyptic 20,000 or so today.

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But George W. Bush withdrew the US from the ABM treaty in 2001, infuriating the Kremlin and setting up Moscow and Washington for what looks like a long-term quarrel over the future of missile defense.

Analysts say the central problem is that Russia depends heavily for security on its nuclear deterrent, while the US is moving toward a far more flexible strategic capacity based on high-precision conventional weapons.

"In the present setup, Russia enjoys parity with the US, and thus holds superpower status, thanks to its nuclear weapons," says Mr. Suslov. "Moscow's suspicion is that the US wants Russia to lose its nuclear weapons, while the US will enjoy overwhelming preponderance of conventional weapons. In that world, the US would be the sole superpower, with the ability to strike anywhere on Earth using strategic delivery vehicles armed with conventional warheads."

New Russia, US doctrines pull countries in opposite directions

Russia's recently adopted military doctrine actually increases the country's dependence on its nuclear forces and lowers the threshold for their use, while the Obama administration's new doctrine, made public this week, moves in exactly the opposite direction.

"Our military reform is not completed and our conventional weapons technology is rather outmoded," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "If we imagine there were no nuclear weapons tomorrow, Russia would be distinctly weak. That's why this START treaty is the end of the arms control road, for quite some time to come."

But a few experts argue that the terms under which this debate is being conducted in Russia are ill-focused.

"Russia cannot and should not aspire to strategic parity with the US," says Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "No amount of arms control negotiations will transform the relationship from adversarial to cooperative.... It's perfectly realistic to expect that the US will someday develop a workable anti-missile shield.

"The way to go is not to try to limit strategic missile defense, but to get on board, and develop a US-Russian collaboration in this area. That would be the game-changer," he says.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons