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New US-Russia arms race? Battle lines grow over missile defense.

Defense Secretary Gates and his Russian counterpart will sit down for high-level talks Thursday. US plans for antimissile deployments are spurring threats that Russia might withdraw from the New START nuclear treaty.

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The Kremlin appears deeply concerned about the Pentagon's "Phased Adaptive" missile defense plan, which envisages about 440 antimissile interceptors based on 43 ships and two European land bases, in Poland and Romania, by the end of this decade. The biggest worry, Russian experts say, is the later phases of the project, which will see large numbers of the advanced SM-3 "Block II" interceptors deployed beginning in 2018.

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"The situation completely changes with the realization of the (later) stages of the missile defense plan," Lt. Gen. Andrei Tretyak, of Russia's General Staff, told journalists last month. "This is a real threat to our strategic nuclear forces."

Gen. Tretyak said that exhaustive studies ordered by Russia's Defense Ministry have concluded that the planned deployments would pose a sufficient menace to Russian intercontinental missiles that Russia's strategic parity with the US would be undermined, along with the basic principles of the New START treaty.

Wording inserted into that treaty by Russia specifically allows it to withdraw if the West deploys antimissile weapons "capable of significantly reducing the effectiveness of the Russian Federation's strategic nuclear forces."

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A Russian withdrawal from New START might bring all progress in US-Russia relations to a halt, and greatly encourage foreign policy hardliners on both sides.

Obama and Medvedev, both of whom face looming reelection battles, need to avoid that and find a formula that at least allows Russia and the US to continue talking amicably about missile defense cooperation, experts say.

The outcome of Thursday's meeting between Mr. Gates and Mr. Serdyukov will be closely watched for the positive, or negative, signal it sends. "New START was the single real success of the US-Russia reset of relations, and it would be politically bad for both Obama and Medvedev if it were seen to be a failure," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

"But the only sure way to save it is to move forward and tackle the thorny issue of missile defense," he says. "The burning need of both presidents to win a political success can break the logjam in these talks and make the nuts-and-bolts negotiators move along faster. This can be solved, but it will take political will."


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