(RFE/RL) -- The United States and Russia have begun talks in Moscow aimed at replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the 18-year-old cornerstone of strategic arms control, which expires in December.
The three days of talks are expected to take place in a constructive atmosphere, as U.S. President Barack Obama is an enthusiastic supporter of nuclear disarmament and has made progress in this direction a priority of his administration.
The aim of the Moscow talks is to help resolve some of the many differences between the two major nuclear powers, so that Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev can refer at least to progress toward a new disarmament treaty at their coming Moscow summit on July 6.
"We will strive to carry out the instructions of President Medvedev and President Obama, who in London specially ordered the delegations to work out arms reductions above and beyond what has already been achieved," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow on May 18.
What has already been achieved in years of negotiations in the START process is a mere beginning to real disarmament. The 1991 START treaty limits each side to a maximum of 6,000 nuclear warheads and 1,600 delivery systems, whether missiles, submarines, or bomber vehicles. It also sets tight verification procedures.
Several recent developments may hinder progress toward a new treaty however. One is the U.S. plan to station a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Washington says its purpose is to intercept potential rocket strikes from Iran and North Korea, but Moscow has taken strong exception to the idea. Lavrov in his latest comments made clear that the issue will be central to any new arms-reduction agreement.
"In working out an agreement, it is essential to take into account the interests of global security, which includes, undoubtedly, the security of the Russian Federation," Lavrov said. "And this means that we must settle the situation regarding missile defense. Definitely."
Another irritant to progress could be the continuing volatility of the situation between Russia and Georgia, following their war last August.
Proof of its potential to continue affecting U.S.-Russian relations came this week when Russia and the Russian-backed breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia walked out of talks with Georgia. Washington said it was "dismayed" at the Russian and South Ossetian walkout, calling the action a coordinated effort to undermine the discussions.
Obama's enthusiasm for arms control has however animated several other sets of ongoing disarmament negotiations.
One is the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, where diplomats have hailed what they call a "remarkable shift" by the United States on a possible treaty to control the production of fissile materials, like plutonium and enriched uranium.
Previously Washington opposed such a treaty on grounds that it would be unverifiable, but Obama laid out his vision of a fissile materials treaty during a visit to Prague in April.
The U.S. team presently in Moscow is led by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller and the Russian side by chief negotiator Anatoly Antonov, who heads the Foreign Ministry's department of security and disarmament. The two held preliminary talks in Rome last month to get to know each other.
with news agency material