WASHINGTON -- A report from Interfax news agency has quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying that the provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) can remain in force even after it expires on December 5.
To some, the pronouncement looks problematic for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which was hoping to sign a new treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when Obama goes to Europe to accept his Nobel Peace Prize on December 10.
At a November 15 meeting with Medvedev in Singapore after the close of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Obama said that the two men's "goal continues to be to complete the negotiations and to be able to sign a deal before the end of the year."
He added that he was "confident" that with "hard work and a sense of urgency," it could happen.
But as Russian and U.S. weapons negotiators continue to meet in Singapore, it has emerged that a key sticking point is how each country inspects the other's nuclear weapons facilities.
"If you believe the leaks that have been coming out over the past couple of days, the issue is now about disagreements over the systems and processes of how things are checked," Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal "Russia in Global Affairs," told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "For its part, the Russian side is opposed to the proposals that the Americans have put forward."
Lukyanov said that one point of disagreement could bring the talks to a crashing halt.
"Nothing is agreed on until everything is agreed on," he said.
'Working Through Issues'
Obama may have been referring to that issue in Singapore when he said he felt "as if both sides are trying to work through some difficult technical issues but are doing so in good faith."
Obama and Medvedev met in Moscow in July and agreed to reduce the number of nuclear warheads that each country could possess to between 1,500 and 1,675 within seven years.
Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which focuses on the consequences of nuclear weapons, thinks the statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry about allowing the original START treaty to remain in force is a positive sign from Moscow.
"I take this as a very positive sign because the START Treaty does expire on December 5 -- and there are provisions for extending it, and the reason it's so important to extend is because it has such robust verification measures in it. We have inspectors now in Russia and they have inspectors here in the United States," Benedict said. "If START I is not extended, then our inspectors would need to leave, Russia and their inspectors would need to leave the U.S., and the trust that we've built may make it more difficult to come to a final agreement."
Benedict said she expects that Obama and Medvedev will sign a START II Treaty soon, perhaps by the end of the year. The hard part, she said, will be persuading getting the U.S. Senate to ratify it.
For the past decade, Benedict said, the Senate has been reluctant to ratify any international treaties, regardless of subject matter.
"As I understand it, they think that the United States can go it alone on any number of things, and that we have a right to have as many weapons as we want, and they believe, I guess, that all weapons are useful," Benedict said. "So they think that military might is the best way for the United States to proceed."
Gary Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington, agreed that Senate ratification will be difficult, but for a more nuanced reason.
"It's not going to be a slam-dunk [in the Senate] because the actual agreement's going to reduce the number of warheads and platforms," Schmitt said. "And if it's really a substantial cut, there'll be a serious debate about what the nature of our deterrent looks like."
In fact, Schmitt said he's surprised that Obama is acting as if the United States needs a START II Treaty. One of the snags in the negotiations so far, he noted, is that Moscow wants to cut weapons further than Washington does.
"I think one of the problems with the Obama administration's approach was that they actually acted like we needed this arms-control agreement, when, in fact, it was the Russians who were looking for it because, first of all, it costs a lot of money to develop new weapons, and the second thing is that a lot of what they have is extremely old and should be taken out of commission," Schmitt said. "Somebody was telling me that at the most recent military parade in Moscow they were driving some of the missiles by and they were noticeably rusty, which is not what you want when you have ICBMS."
Ultimately, Schmitt said, it is good news that both Russia and the United States aren't arbitrarily standing by the December 5 deadline.
Give the two sides plenty of time to talks, he said, because both sides can easily live with an extension of START I.