The United States and Russia will sign a new treaty April 8 in Prague slashing their stockpiles of long-range nuclear weapons.
The new treaty will replace the START I agreement (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) signed in 1991 by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. That treaty came into force in 1994 but expired December 5.
Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says START I helped end the Cold War.
"It reduced from about 10,000 to 6,000 the number of deployed strategic warheads and it limited the total number of each side's strategic nuclear delivery vehicles - the missiles and bombers that carry the warheads - to 1,600," he said. "And both countries met those limits in 2001. It also established a very robust verification system focused on the requirement to eliminate strategic delivery vehicles," said Kimball.
Since the START I treaty came into force, the United States and Russia have slashed their strategic nuclear arsenals even more. And Kimball says last April, both sides began negotiations in earnest to cut back even further - talks that led to the current pact replacing START I.
"It will limit the number of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles to somewhere below 800 on each side. The treaty will also set a new lower limit for the number of strategic deployed nuclear warheads down to 1,550 on each side, Isaacs said. "Currently, the United States deploys about 2,100 strategic warheads - Russia somewhere above 2,200. So this new START treaty would accomplish a 25 to 30 percent reduction in the number of deployed strategic warheads on each side," he added.
John Isaacs, Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says the new treaty will also have strict verification provisions.
"We're 20 years after the Cold War, but let's just say that the United States doesn't totally trust the Russians and vice versa. So there are still very strong verification procedures - probably less stringent than those agreed to in the first START agreement in 1991, but still substantial verification, said Isaacs. "And what that means is we will know pretty well what the Russians are doing with their nuclear weapons stockpiles and the Russians will know what the United States is doing. And some of the verification is done by spy satellites, but a lot will be reports to each other and even allowing inspectors on-site to look at nuclear weapons, in various cases," he added.
One of the key disagreements has been Russia's strong opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. But Isaacs says that issue has been resolved.
"The two leaders - the Russian and American leaders - agreed back in July that there's some vague, shall we say preamble wording in the treaty, saying there is an interrelationship between offensive and defensive weapons," he said. "But this agreement will not regulate missile defenses - so the United States and Russia can continue deploying missile defenses to their heart's content," said Isaacs.
The new treaty will be signed April 8 in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. It then must be ratified by the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate where 67 out of the 100 Senators must vote in favor.
Isaacs says he is cautiously optimistic the treaty will be ratified - but he can't be sure.
"The Senate is very polarized. The Senate just went through a very bitter debate on health care legislation. Some Senators after the debate said Democrats and Republicans won't cooperate on legislation for the rest of the year," he said. "I don't believe that - but the point is there is a need for at least eight Republican senators to vote for the treaty. And if the Republicans decide to shut down the Senate essentially, and say no more legislation for the rest of the year until the election, then the treaty will not get through this year," Isaacs concluded.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters: "National security has always produced large bipartisan majorities, and I see no reason why this should be any different."