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Arms Control Key Issue at Upcoming Moscow Summit


Many analysts agree that during the eight years of the Bush administration, U.S.-Russian relations steadily deteriorated. And experts were wondering whether Barack Obama would reverse that downward trend.

Just several weeks after President Obama was inaugurated, Vice President Joe Biden addressed that issue in a speech on Feb. 7 to an international security conference in Munich, Germany.

"It's time - to paraphrase President Obama - it's time to press the reset button. And to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia," he said.

Marshall Goldman from Harvard University says that speech set a new, positive tone for relations between Washington and Moscow.

"When you say 'reset', that means you clear the computer and that opens up all kinds of new opportunities and you're not going to be held back by past commitments which have been controversial. This provides an opportunity that maybe only a new administration could do because they don't have to be held down by complications that arose under the past government," said Marshall.

Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, a private, independent organization, agrees there are major differences between the Obama and Bush administrations when it comes to relations with Moscow.

"The Obama administration has chosen to focus on the areas where the United States and Russia wish to cooperate, the areas of agreement, and to de-emphasize some of the areas where we have disagreed. One of the most important ways in which they have done this is to focus on the job of negotiating a replacement treaty for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which expires at the end of this year.[December 5]," he said.

During their first face-to-face meeting April 1 in London, Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed to begin negotiations on a post-START treaty significantly reducing strategic - or long-range - nuclear weapons.

A joint statement following the meeting said the two sides will try to reach levels lower than those in the 2002 Moscow Treaty. That pact committed both sides to cutting arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012. The two presidents instructed their negotiators to present a progress report during the July Moscow summit.

While experts believe the two sides can agree on a post-START treaty sometime this year, they see little movement on a contentious issue: the U.S. proposal for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe -10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.

U.S. officials had said the system is needed to defend Europe and the United States against potential threats from countries such as Iran. They said it is not targeted against Moscow as claimed by Russian officials.

Robert Legvold from Columbia University says Barack Obama is not as committed to the missile defense shield as was President Bush.

"Candidate Obama, when he was running for the presidency, made it plain that he had no abiding commitment to either national missile defense or ballistic missile defense. In the case of the Polish and Czech pieces of it, he made it plain, that whether he would as president remain committed to it depended on A/the nature of the threat - that is the Iranian threat - and B/whether or not it was technically feasible and therefore worth the money pursuing. He has not changed that position," he said.

Experts say the missile defense shield will be discussed at the July summit. Other issues include the situation in Afghanistan, what to do with the potential nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea and the overall question of nuclear non-proliferation.

David Kramer, a former senior U.S. State Department official in the Bush administration (now with the German Marshall Fund in the United States), hopes President Obama will raise at least two other issues.

"One: I hope the president does devote time and attention to civil society and human rights activists in Russia. The situation domestically in Russia is deteriorating and I think it is very important for the president to send a signal in that area. And then finally," he added, "I hope the president also would make clear to the Russians - as he has done in comments before his trip - that we don't recognize a Russian sphere of influence, that Georgia, Ukraine and other countries in the region have every right to move toward closer integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions and that that need not come at Russia's expense - that these things can be pursued simultaneously," said Kramer.

Many experts say after five months in office, the Obama administration has begun to rebuild relations between Washington and Moscow. Analysts will be looking at the July summit in Moscow for clear signs that the relationship will continue to grow as both countries try to resolve issues that go far beyond their borders.

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