WASHINGTON -- Russia and the United States have reportedly resolved all remaining differences on a new arms control treaty and could sign a landmark nuclear arms reduction agreement in Prague in a few weeks.
A senior Kremlin official told AP that "all documents" necessary to sign a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) had been agreed. The wire agency also quotes a senior U.S. government official as saying that an announcement is expected by March 26 that a new treaty has been finalized.
The White House has so far only said that the two sides are "very close." Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters today that a deal is near but negotiations are not yet finished.
"We are, I think, very close to having an agreement on a START treaty," Gibbs said. "But [we] won't have one until President [Barack] Obama and his counterpart, Mr. [Dmitry] Medvedev, have a chance to speak again."
Cornerstone Of Relations Reset
A signed treaty would cap almost a year of negotiations between Russian and U.S. officials who originally thought they could finalize a deal before last December, when the treaty expired.
The agreement is seen as crucial to the "reset" in relations between Moscow and Washington that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been pursuing since Obama took office in January 2009.
Relations hit their lowest point in years after the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008.
Obama and Medvedev agreed last April to negotiate a successor to the expiring treaty, and in July mutually agreed to make significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals. Each side agreed to cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads by a quarter -- from 2,200 to 1,600 -- and to slash in half the number of strategic bombers and missiles -- from 1,600 to 800.
That joint understanding followed an April speech by Obama in Prague in which he laid out his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.
In an outdoor speech delivered against the dramatic backdrop of Prague's gothic spires, Obama said, "As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction: America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Back To Prague
Today, as talk of a breakthrough swirled, Russian and U.S. officials indicated that the two presidents would likely meet in Prague to sign a new treaty, possibly as soon as April 8.
Medvedev is scheduled to visit Bratislava, in neighboring Slovakia, on April 6-7.
On April 12-13, Obama will host the heads of state from 44 nations in Washington at a global nuclear security summit. A signed arms reduction treaty with Russia by that date would stand as a powerful symbol of his goal to reduce and eventually eliminate the world's stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Any agreement would have to be ratified by the legislatures of both countries before it would come into force.
The breakthrough in negotiations with Moscow comes as the United States enters what appears to be the final stage of diplomacy before a new round of sanctions against Iran is debated in the UN Security Council.
After a year of diplomatic overtures to Tehran aimed at ending international suspicion that its nuclear program is not, as it insists, peaceful, Washington has signaled that its patience is coming to end.
Russia, which has had a hand in weakening three previous rounds of UN sanctions aimed at Iran, now sounds convinced that Tehran has been given adequate opportunity to prove to the world that it is not trying to acquire a nuclear weapon.
But as recently as last week, during a two-day visit to Moscow by Clinton, Russian officials would not say that they fully support the U.S. position on tough, targeted sanctions aimed at the regime's leaders.