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Talks to give clues on US-Russia ties

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Trident missile
Trident missile: talks point way to future

Talks on nuclear arms getting under way in Geneva should indicate how relations will develop between the US and Russia under President Barack Obama.

Over the next few months it should become clearer as to whether the two countries will agree on further reductions in their nuclear arsenals - and whether they will solve the problem of the American anti-missile system due to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic.

It will also become clearer as to what Mr Obama's nuclear vision is - for a trimming of current stocks or a more radical cutback.

Russia has so far rejected American offers to involve it more closely in the anti-missile system. The US says it is aimed at countering threats from Iran or North Korea. Iran's recent test of a ballistic missile adds to the belief in the Bush administration that the system is needed.

The Russians say it is a potential threat to them and have linked progress in the nuclear talks to progress on the missile shield.

Success in the talks will go a long way towards establishing a new climate of confidence.

Failure will mean that the cool relationship currently prevailing might extend into the term of the Obama administration.

The talks are at a preliminary stage. They are being held because one of the key treaties that reduced American and Russian nuclear forces - Start 1, the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - runs out in December next year. The treaty provides that a year in advance the two sides have to meet to discuss whether to roll it over or renegotiate it.

Start 1 limited the deployment of nuclear warheads to 6,000 per side along with 1,600 missiles and bombers.

It was followed by Start 2 which brought warheads down to 3,500.

There has also been a treaty known as Sort, the Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty, which aims at reducing deployed warheads to 1,700-2,200 by 2012.

Verification

The important point about the expiry of Start 1 is that this treaty contains intrusive verification mechanisms and these verification procedures govern all the other treaties. If Start 1 expires, then so do the verification measures.

Without proper verification, it is unlikely that either side will agree to go for even greater cuts, down to below 1,500 or even lower. The Russians have called for this, though the Bush administration has been unwilling to commit itself.

The Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, said in October that Russia attached "exceptional importance to concluding a new, legally binding Russian-American agreement on nuclear disarmament".

The Bush view does not matter so much now, of course, with a new president due to take office in January.

President-elect Obama has given some indication as to his view. During the presidential election campaign, he told the Washington-based Arms Control Association that he favoured "real, verifiable reductions in all US and Russian nuclear weapons... [This] process should begin by securing Russia's agreement to extend essential monitoring and verification provisions of Start.

He was indicating therefore that the extension of Start 1 provisions should be used as the springboard for a new look at nuclear arsenals.

Daryl G Kimball of the Arms Control Association called for bold measures. "Two decades after the end of the Cold War, there is no plausible reason for US and Russian leaders to maintain thousands of strategic nuclear weapons with large numbers on high alert. Besides the United States and Russia, no state possesses more than 300 nuclear weapons," he wrote.

However, the missile shield does present an obstacle that will have to be overcome. Mr Obama has not expressed opposition to it but has said that it must work.

Doubts as to whether he will commit himself to it emerged after he had a conversation with the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski. Polish officials said that Mr Obama "did not make any promises".

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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