A sweeping new bargain to slash the offensive nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US – what they used to call the "balance of terror" – appears almost ready for Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama to sign.
Unofficial sources say the signing may take place as early as April 8, in Prague, Czech Republic, the venerable eastern European capital in which Mr. Obama launched his campaign for a nuclear weapons-free world just one year ago.
Experts say the new agreement, designed to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, will reduce strategic nuclear warheads by one-quarter, to around 1,600 on each side, and halve the number of delivery vehicles – missiles, bombers, and submarines – to 800 for each country.
The US currently has deployed around 2,150 strategic nuclear weapons; Russia reportedly maintains about 2,600. Both sides have thousands more in storage or awaiting dismantlement under previous arms control deals.
"We cannot help but be pleased with this, because it finally removes headaches that should have been dealt with long ago," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign affairs commission. "It's very important to have this deal, because it enables us to move forward in a number of ways, and it sets an example for other countries."
It's a crucial victory for the Nobel Prize-winning Obama, who can use some dramatic results to brandish as he heads into a 40-nation nuclear security summit due to open in Washington on April 12. It may also be seen in Russia as a political win for Mr. Medvedev, who needs some solid achievements to step out of the shadow of the powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in the runup to 2012 presidential elections.
But Russia's foreign policy community appears far more divided over the usefulness of the new START accord for Russia's long-term security, and some wonder what compromises the Kremlin might have made on Russia's insistence that a strong mechanism be embedded in the text to link the need for controls on defensive antimissile weapons with the treaty's cuts to offensive arsenals.
"It's always wonderful to see friendly handshakes all around," says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti news agency. "But for those of us who remember the late cold-war era, when (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev made concessions to meet American interests, in order to break the ice, there's a wait-and-see feeling about this."
Moscow is deeply suspicious and fearful of a potential US technological breakthrough on missile defense, which could undermine or even negate Russia's aging Soviet-era strategic nuclear deterrent. Russian security experts fondly recall that cold war-era arms control began with the 1972 framing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which curtailed further work on defensive weapons. The logic of follow-on SALT and START agreements was based on the certainty that neither side could defend itself from a nuclear attack, and therefore had no option but to negotiate controls on offensive weapons.
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.
"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."
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."