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Thursday, December 10, 2009

US, Russia closing in on nuclear agreement

The United States and Russia said they were closing in on asuccessor arms reduction treaty that would further slash their nucleararsenals and put their relations on a more solid footing.

"We're getting closer," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs toldreporters here, asked about the prospect for an agreement to replacethe 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). "We're optimisticthat we can get one."

Earlier in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assured "the agreement will be signed soon."

The former Cold War foes sounded confident notes just days afterthe START treaty expired with no agreement on a replacement despiteintense negotiations to hammer out an accord under guidelines USPresident Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev setin July.

The presidents set as a goal slashing the number of warheads oneither side to between 1,500 and 1,675 and the number of "carriers"capable of delivering them to between 500 and 1,100.

The United States has said it currently has some 2,200 nuclear warheads, while Russia is believed to have about 3,000.

"We are two decades beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall, and stillthe United States and Russia deploy more than 2,000 nuclear weapons,many of which are on a high alert status and most of these weaponsexist simply to deter their use by the other country," said ArmsControl Association executive director Daryl Kimball.

"Obviously, the deal should be done well, but it needs to be done. This is a long overdue step."

US arms control experts said the intricacies of verificationmeasures were likely holding up an agreement rather than anyfundamental differences between the two sides.

They predicted negotiators would clinch an accord within weeks, ifnot days. The Russian daily Kommersant cited Russian officials Mondayas saying they wanted an agreement by December 18.

None of the issues before the negotiators are "particularly hard,or particularly deal breakers," said Linton Brooks, the chief USnegotiator of the START treaty.

Brooks, who also served under the previous administration of GeorgeW. Bush, noted that it took the United States and the Soviet Union fouryears to negotiate the START treaty, "and essentially all of that timewas verification."

"Now, (that was a) more complicated treaty, greater suspicion,scenarios we don't worry about any more. Nonetheless, it suggests thatwhat stretches this out is verification."

Particularly troublesome was how to count each side's nuclear warheads and verify any agreed reductions.

The START treaty does not provide a precedent because it countedonly delivery systems, not warheads, and assumed that each bomber,intercontinental missile and submarine carried the maximum number ofweapons.

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The actual number of warheads that each side possesses is believedto be significantly lower than accounted for under START. And the newtreaty is designed to measure the actual forces.

"So either you have to have all new attribution rules, or you haveto say, 'No, what we're going to count is real, no joke warheads.' Andthen you have to have a way to verify it," Brooks said.

"It's not that there's any blinding new breakthrough that isnecessary, but drafting the procedures to verify not the maximumnumber, but the actual number will be time consuming."

Russian reports have suggested that the hang-up was Russian demandsthat the United States end its continuous monitoring of Russia'sleading missile production plant in Votkinsk, about 360 miles (580kilometers) north of Moscow.

But Brooks said continuous monitoring at Votinsk no longer served auseful purpose, and the Bush administration had previously concluded itdid not want to preserve it.

The United States wants to maintain other START verificationmeasures, however, including those requiring notification andtransparency about missile tests, he said.(Original News)