Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Friday, 4 December 2009

New Start likely in US-Russia nuclear talks

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Russian IBM in Moscow parade  9 May 2009
Russia also wants warhead delivery systems included in the new deal

The US and Russia are in the final stages of negotiating a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty.

The original target was to get it settled by 5 December, the day on which an earlier agreement, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start), expires.

However, the target slipped until the end of the year when the complexity of some of the problems being negotiated in Geneva emerged. In the past such treaties have taken years to agree.

As the old treaty ran out, a joint Russian-American statement said that both sides were committed to "concluding preparations for a new Start treaty in the near future."

The White House had been hoping that the treaty would be agreed by the time for President Obama picked up his Nobel peace prize in Oslo on 10 December, giving him the chance of signing it on the same trip.

A nuclear arms agreement would offset the impact of a president being given the peace prize just after he had announced reinforcements for a war. He will doubtless mention it in his Nobel speech anyway.

Two needs

The new treaty will also be important in the run-up to a review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty next May. Non-nuclear-armed states argue that the nuclear-armed ones have done little to disarm and should do more.

It will also be presented in Washington and Moscow as evidence of American and Russian compliance with Security Council Resolution 1887 in September.

This called for steps to "create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons". President Obama has himself said he would like such a world and, while few believe it will ever happen, further reductions are seen as a step at least in that direction.

The treaty is designed to fulfil two needs.

First, there has to be a new agreement on methods of verifying compliance with any nuclear reduction treaty. These methods were contained in Start. It's now been agreed that the Start provisions will be extended until a new treaty comes into force.

Second, the two countries want to show some fruits of their improved relations by reducing their nuclear arsenals (while still leaving themselves with plenty of destructive power).

Graph showing US and Russian nuclear weapon stockpiles

Start and Sort

The outline of an agreement was announced in July after a meeting between Presidents Medvedev and Obama in Moscow.

It is as follows:

• Within seven years of the agreement coming into force, each side will reduce its "strategic delivery vehicles" (missiles and bombers) to between 500 and 1,100. It is thought that the final figure will be something fewer than 800

• Warheads "associated" with these vehicles will be cut to between 1,500 and 1,675. This will be below the figure of 2,200 deployed warheads to which both sides are already committed in the current treaty known as Sort, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, signed by Presidents Bush and Putin in 2002

It is confusing that Start and Sort run concurrently - the first is important for verification, the second for warhead numbers. Start is expiring and Sort will be superseded, as both are overtaken by the new treaty.

Verification challenge

The main problem has been to agree new means of verification. The Russians felt that the intrusive on-site inspection system allowed under Start was no longer necessary or desirable. So the option of simply extending Start for another five years, as was possible, was not on the table.

Under Start, each side is allowed to send observers to missile-manufacturing plants. The Russians did not exercise their right (at a missile assembly facility in Utah) but the Americans did (at Votkinsk in Russia and Pavlograd in Ukraine) and the Russians have questioned the monitoring at Votkinsk. Ukraine is now a non-nuclear state.

The trick is to get as much verification as the US wants, bearing in mind the need to satisfy the US Senate which has to ratify any treaty, without upsetting Russian sensitivities.

Another problem has been to define what "warheads" means. The phrase "associated warheads" in the July announcement indicated that the US is sticking to the Bush administration's insistence that only those warheads actually deployed and ready to go will be counted. Other warheads would be in storage.

What at one time threatened to be a major block - the US plan for an anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic - was removed when President Obama removed the system itself.

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