US and Russia Close to an Arms Control Agreement

Obama, Medvedev talked at UN climate conference in Copenhagen

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, say considerable progress has been made on a new agreement replacing the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - or START - accord that expired December 5. The two men spoke to reporters after a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations conference on climate change.

President Obama sounded a distinctly optimistic note about the chances for agreement on a new arms reduction treaty. "We've been making excellent progress. We are quite close to an agreement and I'm confident it will be completed in a timely fashion," he said.

Speaking through an interpreter, Russian president Medvedev echoed Mr. Obama's remarks. "Our positions are very close and almost all the issues that we've been discussing for the last month are almost closed," he said.

Mr. Medvedev said there are certain technical details that still require more work. And the Russian leader expressed the hope work will be completed in a brief period of time - but he provided no specific date.

During a July summit meeting in Moscow, Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed to the basic principles of a treaty to replace the existing START-One accord.

More than 1,000 pages long, the START agreement is one of the most complex treaties in history dealing with reducing nuclear weapons.  It was signed in 1991 by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It came into force in 1994. 

Experts say the United States has about 2,200 strategic nuclear weapons deployed on approximately 1,000 delivery systems - land-based or sea-based missiles and heavy bombers. Russia has approximately 2,700 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on about 700 delivery systems.

At their July summit, the two presidents agreed to what analysts described as modest cuts in their nuclear arsenals. They decided to reduce between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads on each side and to limit the delivery systems to between 500 and 1,100.

The START treaty also established stringent and very intrusive verification procedures. And a key question facing Russian and American negotiators, is what verification measures should be incorporated in the new follow-on treaty. Analysts say the two sides are still apart on that issue: the Americans want more intrusive measures than the Russians do.

Former National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft says agreeing on a follow-on treaty to the START accord is crucial. "I think it's very important both psychologically for the relationship and because the U.S. and Russia are still the custodians of 95 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. And it seems to me we ought to start thinking about a pathway to the future role of nuclear weapons in the world and to increase the stability of the balance of nuclear weapons, to reduce them to the extent that's possible. And unless we and the Russians can make progress, it's just not going to happen," he said.

When the two sides agree on a new follow-on treaty, that accord will have to be ratified by the Russian Duma and the United States Senate. Many experts say that process may take months.

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