The Rome meeting will be followed up with a visit by Russian Foreign Minister to Washington on May 7, where he will hold talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And in July, U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Moscow for talks with Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev.
As both sides begin laying down their early markers for a new strategic arms pact, key differences are already emerging.
Speaking in Prague on April 5, Obama set a long-term goal of a nuclear-free world, signaling that Washington was interested in deep cuts in the U.S. and Russian arsenals. Obama also called for beefing up the Nonproliferation Treaty and for an international treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for military purposes.
As I wrote here, Obama's agenda is causing more than a little bit of discomfort among the Russian foreign-policy elite.
Russia has long been pushing for a new arms control pact. For one thing, its arsenal is aging. Additionally, the superpower pageantry that surrounds arms control summits is important to Moscow in a psychological sense since it is one of the few international forums that puts Russia on equal footing with the United States.
But Russia's zeal for arms control only goes so far. Given Washington's overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons, many in Moscow fear that radical reductions in strategic nuclear weapons would relegate Moscow to being a second-rate power.
Speaking in Helsinki on April 23, Medvedev appeared to link nuclear cuts to restrictions on conventional weapons, saying, "it is unacceptable to compensate for nuclear reductions by building up systems fitted with conventional weapons."
In addition to the predictable demand for Washington to scrap plans for a missile-defense system in Europe, Medvedev called for cuts on delivery vehicles as well as warheads, a ban on deploying weapons in space, and restrictions on mothballing nuclear warheads for redeployment at a later date.
Yury Fedorov, an analyst with Chatham House, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that such provisions would be impossible to implement without verification procedures that would be unacceptable to either side. "Russia is coming out with proposals that are either obviously unacceptable to the Americans or capable of complicating negotiations severely," he said.
Russia is probably not trying to scuttle the very arms pact it has been seeking from the United States for years. But the Kremlin is clearly spooked by Obama's call for deep cuts (some unconfirmed press reports say he wants to cut both sides' arsenals by 80 percent), and appears to be sending a message to the U.S. president to dial down his ambitions.
-- Brian Whitmore