WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Russian officials say the ratification process for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, is set to begin in early May.
The treaty, signed on April 8 by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, replaces the 1991 START treaty, which expired in December. It reduces each country’s stockpile of deployed nuclear warheads by 30 percent over seven years, lowering the number to 1,550 from the current limit of 2,200.
Officials in both Washington and Moscow have hailed the treaty as a sign of greatly improved relations between the former Cold War foes.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, U.S. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher said American lawmakers will soon begin studying the agreement in committees ahead of a general vote on ratification. Among the senators involved in the consultations are John Kerry, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee; Richard Lugar, the minority leader of the Foreign Relations Committee; Carl Levin, the chair of the Armed Services Committee; and Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence.
The treaty needs approval by two-thirds of the Senate to be ratified. Tauscher said the goal is for the treaty to be ratified within the year.
Speaking alongside Tauscher, Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, said that Russian lawmakers are working in a similar time frame.
He said that informal discussion of the new START treaty has already begun in the Russian parliament ahead of official submission, which is scheduled for the first 10 days of May.
Margelov predicted that a draft law version of the treaty could be ready by June. That would be followed by general consideration in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, and a vote in the Federation Council.
Although preliminary, the U.S. and Russian timetables maintain the possibility of “synchronized” ratification.
Speaking in Washington on April 14, Medvedev suggested that coordinated ratification would help the two countries avoid a repeat of the tensions that arose when ratification of the previous START treaty was delayed.
Margelov says that the United States and Russia should ratify the START treaty together as a precedent for the future. The Russian government has "chosen with the Obama administration the topic of arms reduction as the first step in the 'reset' of our bilateral relations," he said. "If we really want to see stage two of that reset, yes, we have to proceed forward simultaneously."
He says that synchronizing the ratification "will send a very important signal to so-called 'third countries' that the START III agreement is not just an agreement between two governments, between two cabinets, between two presidents, but [that] it is supported by the public."
But ratifying the new START treaty may face challenges in both Russia and the United States.
Margelov warns that in the Duma, retired generals with an “institutional memory” of the Cold War may argue against arms reductions.
In the U.S. Senate, Democrats will need Republican support to achieve the needed two-thirds vote -- support that may be hard to come by in Washington’s deeply partisan climate.
A number of senators also see the new START as interfering with U.S. defense capabilities, even though the treaty does not constrain plans for the possible construction of missile-defense shields in Romania and Bulgaria.
The U.S. ratification process may also be slow. The Senate already has a busy legislative agenda, and mid-term elections to be held later in the year could put a further drag on the process by decreasing the number of days senators meet to vote on legislation.