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Will START Stop?

Russia has suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. And it has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, or I.N.F. What is the status of another arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow -- the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, commonly known as START I?

The START I treaty was negotiated in the 1980s, signed by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, and came into force in 1994. It was the first treaty requiring the elimination of U.S. and Soviet -- now Russian -- nuclear weapons systems. It placed a limit of 6000 strategic, or long-range, nuclear warheads on each side. And it limited the number of strategic delivery systems -- such as bombers, land-based and submarine based missiles -- to 1600 each.

Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says the START I treaty was significant in another way.

"It also established something which is still extremely valuable today, which is that it put in place the most extensive and detailed verification and monitoring system between the United States and Russia relating to arms control. And to this day, the two sides allow inspection teams from the other country to visit missile bases: they exchange information about their missile holdings. And this provides a very high degree of confidence that each side has fulfilled and will continue to fulfill their commitments under the treaty," says Kimball. "And it gives us a very good idea of the number of each country's nuclear arsenals to this day, which have gone well below the six-thousand strategic warhead limit for each side."

Washington and Moscow have abided by the START I provisions. Michael Levi, an arms control expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says in 2002, the two sides signed a new agreement -- the Moscow Treaty [the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, or SORT] -- that calls for even deeper cuts in their long-range nuclear missile arsenals.

"The Moscow Treaty is much simpler than the START treaty. It focuses on coming down to roughly two-thousand weapons, but it doesn't include the same kinds of verification and inspection measures that the START treaty has. But in general, as far as numbers go, the Moscow Treaty is about going substantially beyond the START treaty," says Levi.

Future Arms Control

The START I treaty expires in December 2009, unless Washington and Moscow agree to extend it. In a brief joint statement in early July, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said both sides will continue discussions on a post-START arrangement.

Steve Andreasen, former arms control expert on the National Security Council [1993-2001], says the United States and Russia are indicating the START I treaty, as it exists today, will not simply be extended for a five-year period.

"Having said that, what will come in its place -- that is, what will be the regime that is a follow-on to that agreement -- is still very much an open issue. The United states appears to be prepared to simply allow for a non-legally binding set of transparency and confidence building measures, and Russia appears to be pressing for a more robust set of measures and also possibly a lower limit on strategic forces and to make that limitation legally binding," says Andreasen. "So one of the tricky issues for the Bush administration here is that in 2002, it agreed to a treaty -- that is, the Moscow Treaty -- but there was no verification that went with it. And it made the point that the START I treaty would be used to verify the Moscow Treaty. So one issue is: 'What happens to verification of the Moscow Treaty if the START treaty is allowed to expire in 2009?'"

New Missiles, New Treaty?

As U.S. and Russian officials discuss the fate of START I, Moscow continues to modernize its long-range missile force. Daryl Kimball, from the Arms Control Association, says the latest missile test was conducted in late May.

"Russia has been conducting, with some regularity, field tests of a new class of ballistic missiles known as the Topol-M missile. This recent test was, from what we understand, one of the Topol-M variants. Russia is in the process of fielding this new ballistic missile, which can carry several nuclear warheads. And the Russians are gradually withdrawing from service their older SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles," says Kimball.

Michael Levi from the Council on Foreign Relations, says such tests are normal. "Testing of ballistic missiles is a completely routine exercise. If you rely on missiles for your security, you are going to test them. And there is nothing in the START treaty to prohibit testing of missiles -- nor should there be."

Many experts do not believe that presidents Bush and Putin will be able to reach an agreement on extending the START I treaty. Kimball says talks must nevertheless continue. "Both the United States and Russia, today, deploy about four-thousand strategic nuclear warheads each. And that puts us in the same condition, the same situation that we were during the Cold War -- of each country being capable of annihilating the other," says Kimball.

Kimball and others say if Bush and Putin fail to reach an accord, it will be up to two new leaders to attempt to bridge differences, since the current presidents will be out of office when START I expires in December 2009.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.