MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia's foreign minister said today he expects an agreement will be reached soon on a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States.
Sergei Lavrov's comments were Moscow's strongest public statement yet that a deal may be imminent.
"The remaining questions, I hope, will be resolved rather promptly when the negotiations resume, and they will resume at the very beginning of February, I think," Lavrov told reporters.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev laid out plans last year to forge a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and reduce the arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers.
It is a key element of efforts to mend relations between Washington and Moscow, which plunged to post-Cold War lows after Russia's brief war with pro-Western Georgia in 2008.
Negotiators were unable to reach agreement by December 5, when START I expired, and official negotiations in Geneva have not resumed after a break over the holiday period. A top U.S. official had indicated earlier this month that they would resume on January 25.
But high-level consultations on the treaty resumed last week, and two top U.S. officials, national security adviser James Jones and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, traveled to Moscow this week for talks.
Lavrov said Jones and his Russian counterpart were expected to give the negotiators instructions that would help reach compromises. He did not say what remains in dispute or precisely when a final agreement might be reached.
Both sides have said they want the treaty signed in time to set an example for a global conference in May that they hope will bolster efforts to combat nuclear weapons proliferation.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, suggested on January 20 that agreement could be reached in "the very near future."
Such an agreement must be ratified by lawmakers in both countries to take effect.
In July, Obama and Medvedev agreed that the new treaty should cut the number of nuclear warheads on each side to between 1,500 and 1,675, and the number of delivery vehicles to between 500 and 1,100.
Analysts say negotiators are at least closer to agreement on more specific numerical limits within those ranges.
Officials have said recently that issues still being negotiated included monitoring and verification measures.