The United States and Russia have agreed to resume talks on replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as START-1 that expires this December.
The decision to pursue talks replacing the START-1 treaty was reached during a London meeting earlier this month (April 3) between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev - the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders.
A few days later during a speech in Prague April 5, Mr. Obama said his administration will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.
"To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty with the Russians this year. President [Dmitri] Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally-binding, and sufficiently bold. And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor," said the president.
The START-1 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.
More than 1,000 pages long, START-1 is one of the most complex treaties in history, dealing with reducing nuclear weapons. Steve Andreasen, is a former arms control expert on the National Security Council, now teaching at the University of Minnesota.
"It places limitations on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles - that is long-range bombers and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles on submarines and based on land. And also places an overall ceiling on the number of warheads that can be deployed on those systems. The ceiling on warheads is 6,000 and the ceiling on strategic nuclear delivery systems is 1,600," he said.
The START treaty also established stringent and very intrusive verification procedures. Frank Miller, who also served as an arms control expert on the National Security Council [now with the independent consulting firm The Cohen Group], describes some of those measures.
"The key verification measures require teams to inspect and ensure that the missiles that each side deploys don't carry more than the warheads that they are supposed to be carrying. It continues to confirm that some U.S. bombers, all the B-1 bombers, no longer have a nuclear weapons role," he said. "We continue to monitor production of Russian mobile missiles to ensure that in their production of the SS-27 mobile ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile], they are not also building, covertly, a missile called the SS-20 which was banned during the Reagan years [by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty or INF]. So there are a large number of measures which allow the governments to be confident that the other side is in fact carrying out the [provisions of] the treaty," Miller added.
Washington and Moscow have abided by the provisions of the START-1 treaty. But the pact expires on December 5 of this year.
For the past several years, Russian and American officials have been trying to agree on a post-START-1 arrangement - but with little progress.
Experts say there is a new impetus now to reach agreement because of the Obama-Medvedev meeting. They say negotiators for both sides will try to decide on an even lower number of nuclear weapons and verification provisions to be included in the new treaty.
But will they agree by the December deadline? Once again, Frank Miller.
"If the presidents of both countries are issuing instructions to their negotiators not to let small things get in the way, and if the presidents keep watching over what their negotiators do, the answer is clearly 'yes'," he said.
Steve Andreasen also believes an agreement can be reached by December.
"Having said that, one of the tricks here is to try and get something done in time for the legislative process - that is the United States Senate and the Duma [parliament] in Russia - to approve whatever they do before the START-1 treaty expires in December," he said. "[Republican] Senator [Richard] Lugar, who is on the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate in the United States, has said in order for that to happen, the new agreement needs to be done by August. So that's a very tight timeline," he noted.
Presidents Obama and Medvedev have instructed their arms negotiators to provide a progress report by July when the American leader is expected to visit Moscow for a summit meeting.