It took nearly a year for Russia and the United States to complete a new strategic arms pact as the two sides got bogged down in endless haggling, posturing, and political deadlock.
But now that Moscow and Washington are finally on the verge of signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), experts are saying the fringe benefits of the pact could be well worth the wait.
"If you go back and look at U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Soviet relations over the past 30-40 years, whenever you have had progress on arms control, it has tended to have had a broader impact on the broader relationship," says Steven Pifer, a former State Department official who specializes in arms control issues and Russian affairs.
"Now sometimes that impact may be short-lived, but it tends to give a boost," he said.
Officials in Washington and Moscow said on March 24 that the two sides have reached an agreement to reduce their deployed strategic warheads by more than one-quarter and their launchers by one-half.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev are scheduled to speak by telephone on March 26 to iron out the final details. Officials say preparations are being made for a signing ceremony in Prague in early April, around the first anniversary of a speech Obama gave in the Czech capital calling for drastic reductions in global nuclear arsenals.
The hope in Washington, Pifer says, is that the arms agreement "will lead to greater Russian help on issues of concern" to the United States, such as securing Moscow's assistance in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and maintaining the Kremlin's continued cooperation in allowing NATO to transport equipment across its territory to Afghanistan.
Aleksandr Golts, a Moscow-based defense analyst, says with the new treaty, such cooperation is now more likely.
"I didn't think it was a good idea to begin the reset in Russian-American relations with the START treaty because this puts us somewhat in a Cold War-type environment. But the fact that they successfully completed the treaty creates the possibility for cooperation in many other spheres, including Afghanistan and Iran," Golts says.
The Reset’s Payoff
Today, just one day after news of a breakthrough on START became public, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said Moscow was open to lending its support to a new round of UN sanctions on Tehran.
"If there is no visible progress in this direction, then we do not exclude the possibility of putting additional pressure on the Iranians by means of sanctions," Nesterenko said. "However, it is our view that such sanctions must be aimed exclusively at achieving nonproliferation goals rather than suffocating the country financially and economically."
Pifer says in recent months, Russia, which has a veto-wielding seat on the UN Security Council, has become increasingly open to supporting sanctions against Iran, a move which it had staunchly opposed in the past.
"I think the Russians are responding somewhat to the changed U.S.-Russian relationship," Pifer says, adding that the new approach "may be part of the payoff of [the] reset" policy.
"Now, the Russians, in the end, are not going to be willing to go as far as we would like them to go. But they are prepared to go farther than they were six months or a year ago, and that's a good development," Pifer says.
After meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Medvedev said sanctions against Iran might be "inevitable." And at a press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris earlier this month, Medvedev said he was open to "smart," targeted sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Despite the more cooperative tone, Russia has not been shy about going its own way on Iran at times. During a visit to Moscow last week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that a Russian-built reactor at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant would begin operations this summer.
If the signing of a new START treaty happens as planned in early April, it will come shortly before the White House hosts a conference on nuclear security in Washington. It will also fall before a conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in New York in May.
Analysts say having a signed START treaty in hand for those events will help Obama achieve his goal of strengthening the NPT by giving UN weapons inspectors greater authority.
"This is going to strengthen the administration's hand,” Pifer says. “They are going to go to the NPT review conference in May and say 'we are doing our part. We're reducing nuclear weapons.' They are going to have greater credibility to tighten up the nonproliferation regime."
"It's not going to persuade the North Koreans or the Iranians to back off their programs,” Pifer adds. “But what it should help to do is to create more barriers by giving the International Atomic Energy Agency greater inspection rights, which creates more barriers for nuclear aspirants."
U.S. and Russian negotiators have been working to secure a new START treaty for nearly a year, replacing the one signed by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.
The two sides missed a December 5 deadline, when the old pact expired. Key sticking points included disagreements over verification procedures and Russian attempts to link U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Europe to the START treaty.
In the end, Russia relented on the missile-defense linkage and settled for nonbinding language in the treaty's preamble noting the relationship between offensive weapons and missile defense.
Analyst Golts says Moscow's unsuccessful attempts to bring missile defense into the START talks amounted to little more that political posturing.
"The negotiations had a political character. Since Russia sees missile defense as something that will increase U.S. influence in Europe, it tried to argue that missile defense threatened Russia's nuclear potential. This is not true and every specialist knows this," Golts says.
According to media reports citing unidentified U.S. officials, the treaty will cut deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 from the current 2,200 within seven years. It would also cut launchers to 800 from the current 1,600.
Pifer says Moscow is pleased with the agreement because its ageing nuclear arsenal is being reduced by attrition as old weapons are not being replaced at the rate they are being decommissioned.
"The Russian strategic numbers are going down,” Pifer says. “The treaty is important to Moscow, including to the military, because it's the vehicle by which they insure that U.S. forces come down in parallel. We're in a much better position to keep a larger force if we wanted to."
Pifer continued: "This is the treaty that assures that Russia is a nuclear superpower on par with the United States at a time when strategic nuclear weapons are Russia's main, if not only, claim to superpower status."