Russia and the United States are inching closer to a deal to replace a key Cold War-era arms control treaty that expires at midnight.
U.S. and Russian officials say it is unlikely that the two sides will agree on a replacement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on time, but existing provisions will remain in effect indefinitely until negotiators can work out the final details of a new pact.
Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev released a joint statement today committing to "continue to work together in the spirit of the START Treaty following its expiration, as well as our firm intention to ensure that a new treaty on strategic arms enter into force at the earliest possible date."
The Russian Foreign Ministry also released a statement today saying "intensive efforts" on the new arms accord "are drawing to a close" and predicted that the new START treaty would be a "landmark in disarmament and nonproliferation and mark a move toward a higher degree of cooperation between Russia and the United States."
In Washington today, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said both sides are eager to draft a new treaty as quickly as possible.
"We have made some good progress. I think it's fair to say that we have a kind of a basic framework, and the major provisions of a new treaty have been agreed," Kelly said. "Both parties want to agree to a new treaty that fully corresponds to their national security interests as soon as they can. I think that you've seen that the two presidents have committed to coming up with the text [of a new treaty] by the end of this month."
But Kelly also noted that the two sides are having "robust discussions" over their differences. He declined to give any details, but said the negotiators are determined to work things out over the next few weeks.
Both the Kremlin and the White House say a new START treaty replacing the historic accord signed by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in July 1991 would be clear evidence of a reset in relations after the tension of recent years.
Obama, who is due to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, is hoping a new accord will provide his young administration with a badly needed foreign policy victory and provide momentum for his long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. And Medvedev is eager to present Russia as a world power on a par with the United States.
Warheads And Delivery Vehicles
Analysts say some of the delay is due to the lack of urgency comparable to what existed during the Cold War, when both sides were on hair-trigger alert and the prospect of nuclear holocaust was real.
"In the 1980s, negotiators were certain that they were dealing with serious and important issues of state security and that if an agreement wasn't reached the threat of nuclear war would increase," says Aleksandr Golts, a Moscow-based defense analyst and deputy editor in chief of the Russian online newspaper "Yezhednevny Zhurnal."
"Current negotiators don't have this problem. Everybody understands that whether or not there is an agreement, there won't be any nuclear war," Golts says.
Moscow and Washington have long given up hope that a new pact would be in place before the existing START treaty expires at midnight Greenwich Mean Time today.
In a statement today, the White House indicated differences over the new treaty were unlikely to be resolved in the next 24 hours.
And once Obama and Medvedev sign an accord, it still must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and the Russian State Duma to come into force.
At a July summit in Moscow, Obama and Medvedev agreed on the basic framework of a deal to cut operationally deployed warheads by about one-third, to between 1,500-1,675 for each side. They also agreed to limit strategic delivery vehicles such as missiles, bombers, and submarines capable of launching nuclear weapons to between 500 and 1,100 for each side.
The cuts would have to be made within seven years after the treaty taking effect.
Secrecy And Rumors
Since the Moscow summit, talks between U.S. and Russian negotiators have been going on in Switzerland to work out the details. The negotiations are taking place under strict secrecy, as both sides have agreed to a news blackout of the details of the talks.
According to press reports citing unidentified officials, one key sticking point is the verification process. Russia is reportedly insisting that the United States close an observation station in Volkinsk, about 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow, where a team of U.S. inspectors monitors Russia's production of mobile missiles.
The U.S. side considers the verification at Votkinsk and other similar sites important because the only way to know how many mobile missiles the Russian side has is to count them at the point of production.
Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, says this dispute over verification illustrates the lingering mistrust that pervades the relationship despite warm words from Moscow and Washington about improving ties.
"It reflects the fact that you still don't have a strong climate of trust even 20 years after the end of the Cold War," Gvosdev says. "That's a real gap and it's one that the reset and PR and other things can't get around, because it's the lower levels of the bureaucracy that have to implement this treaty when push comes to shove."
In addition to verification issues, there is also reportedly disagreement over the number of delivery vehicles allowed. Russia, whose missiles, bombers, and submarines are ageing, is seeking deeper cuts in this area than the United States, analysts say.
'A Little Bit Of Gamesmanship'
In the absence of clear facts about the negotiations, the rumor mill has been operating at a fast and furious pace. Earlier reports indicated the agreement would be signed in Oslo on December 10 when Obama picks up his Nobel Peace Prize.
A report on Czech television later suggested the treaty could be signed a day later in Prague, where Obama made a speech in April calling for a nuclear-free world. But Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout cast doubt on such a scenario today, saying it would have been "nice" for the signing to be held December 11 in Prague, but that "the current state of negotiations" made that unlikely.
Golts says some in the Moscow elite are interested in dragging the negotiations out as long as possible to prove Russia's muscle on the world stage.
"Everything depends on political will. If Russia wants an agreement quickly, everything will be resolved quickly. If they want this to drag out for years, it will drag out for years," Golts says.
Other analysts agree that it is Moscow that is holding up an agreement at this point, but express optimism that a new treaty will be signed very soon.
Steven Pifer, a former State Department official specializing in arms control issues and Russian affairs, says "both sides have a strong motivation for an agreement," but adds that Moscow is dragging out the talks in hopes of winning last-minute concessions from Washington.
"I think there is a little bit of gamesmanship on the Russian side," Pifer says. "They realize that next Thursday, President Obama is going to be in Oslo to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. They probably calculate that he would like to arrive in Oslo with an arms control treaty in hand. And I think they are trying to drag this out and see if they can use that timeline to extract some extra movement from the U.S. side."