One of the key challenges facing the Obama administration in its relations with Russia is what to do with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as START-One which expires in December 2009. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the main points of the treaty and discusses what options are available to both sides.
The START-One 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.
It was the first treaty requiring the elimination of U.S. and Soviet - now Russian - nuclear weapons systems. It placed a limit of 6,000 strategic - or long-range - nuclear warheads on each side. And it also limited the number of strategic delivery vehicles - such as bombers, land based and submarine based missiles - to 1,600 each.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, said the START-One treaty is significant in another way.
"The START treaty established very intrusive verification provisions," he said. "It allows for onsite inspections of each sides nuclear weapons installations. It requires the transmittal of detailed information about each countries stockpiles which onsite inspections are confirming. In addition, it allows each country to use national technical means - in other words spy satellites and other means - to further confirm what each country is declaring," he said.
Kimball said the verification measures contained in the START-One treaty are important for both sides.
"If these verification provisions were to disappear, the U.S. intelligence community would have to draw resources away from the fight against the war on terror, Afghanistan, the Middle East and focus more on Russia, he said. "And in fact Russia may not be able to see what the United States has because their satellites, their intelligence systems, have greatly deteriorated over the last 20 years."
Steve Andreasen, an arms control expert at the University of Minnesota, said the START treaty is linked to another nuclear weapons pact.
"That treaty [START-One] has become also the foundation for the monitoring and verification of the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which set a lower limit on the number of deployed strategic, offensive weapons that both sides could have - and that new limit is 1,700 to 2,200," he said. "And that in effect is a short agreement, relatively short - that is two to three pages, with no monitoring and verification provisions of its own. So the START-One agreement, which is still in effect, provides the basis for monitoring not only the Moscow Treaty, but both sides' strategic nuclear forces today."
Washington and Moscow have abided by the START-One provisions. But the treaty expires on December 5, 2009.
For the past several years, Russian and American officials have been trying to agree on a post-START arrangement - but with little progress. Experts said one of the key stumbling blocks is whether the new treaty would be legally binding: Moscow would like it to be a strong legal document, Washington prefers a more loose agreement.
Analysts said with President George Bush leaving office January 20, it will be up to the Obama administration to continue discussions and find a compromise.
Robert Legvold, a Russia expert at Columbia University, said letting the START-One treaty expire would be a catastrophe.
"If START-One collapses, is either not extended or replaced and ends in December 2009, then basically the strategic nuclear arms regime has collapsed entirely. That's something the Obama administration does not want to happen," he said.
Steve Andreasen, from the University of Minnesota, said President Obama will be facing several options as his administration continues talks with Moscow. The first would be to let the treaty expire. The second would be to extend it for five years and the third is to continue negotiations.
"Having said that, the option that might be most attractive to both sides, as we look forward, is a simple five-year extension while they continue the dialogue and reach some agreement at a later date that would then supersede the START-One treaty," said Andreasen.
While key disagreements remain between Washington and Moscow, analysts believe an agreement on a post-START arrangement will be reached because both sides have shown a political will to continue negotiations and reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles even further.