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Will New START Treaty Boost US-Russian Relations?

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, have signed a new treaty slashing their stockpiles of long-range nuclear weapons. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at whether the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will provide a boost to U.S.-Russian relations.

The new treaty replaces the START-One agreement 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 last December fifth.

The treaty signed by presidents Obama and Medvedev sets a new lower limit for deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 on each side - down from about 2,200. It also cuts down to 700 the number of deployed delivery vehicles such as heavy bombers and rockets. The treaty also provides for a strict verification regime.

Experts say the New START Treaty - as the agreement is known - is the first step toward President Obama's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons outlined in a speech last year [05 April 2009] in the Czech capital, Prague.

"I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence," he said.

Many experts, including Darryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association - a private research firm - say the New START Treaty is an important step forward for U.S.-Russian relations.

"For decades, the nuclear relationship had defined the relationship - for better and for worse," said Kimball. "And we have to remember that unless there is a system of regulation that the two sides can understand, and count on, there will be mistrust and suspicion relating to nuclear weapons. So this doesn't solve all of the nuclear competition issues between the U.S. and Russia in the years ahead. But it really does address it in the way that allows the two countries to focus on other issues that are of common concern: proliferation in Iran, securing loose nuclear materials as well as important global climate and energy questions."

For his part, John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, says the treaty provides impetus to President Obama's goal to "reset" relations with Moscow.

"In the past eight years, during the Bush administration, U.S.-Russian relations, shall we say, were not the warmest. And there are always going to be differences on major issues, including on Iran, between the United States and Russia. But this treaty is an important step forward to show the two sides can talk civilly, can come to an agreement on important issues - and I hope that this agreement spills out into agreements on other issues as well," he said.

Analysts also say the new nuclear weapons agreement will give the U.S. and Russia a boost as they go into next week's summit in Washington D.C. on nuclear terrorism - and next month's 2010 Review Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations in New York.

But Matthew Bunn from Harvard University says he does not believe that the treaty signing will entice other countries to slash their nuclear arsenals.

"I don't think other countries will formally join the reductions process until the United States and Russia go significantly lower than they will in this START follow-on treaty," he said. "I think there will need to be another round that deals with some more fundamental issues such as not just the weapons that are on deployed missiles, but all the nuclear weapons, including the reserve weapons and the tactical nuclear weapons and bringing those total stockpiles down to a smaller number before other countries are likely to formally join in the reductions and negotiation process."

Before coming into effect, the New START treaty must be ratified by the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate. The Obama administration has expressed the hope that the Senate would act quickly and approve the new pact.