WASHINGTON — Negotiations to complete a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty have stalled over a Russian demand for the option to withdraw unilaterally if Moscow determines that U.S. missile defenses would threaten its intercontinental nuclear missile force, a senior U.S. official said Monday.
Similar "unilateral statements" have been included in previous arms control treaties, and the former Bush administration used one in 2002 to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union.
The Obama administration, however, has rejected the Russian demand, fearing that it could make it harder to win the Republican votes needed for Senate ratification of the new nuclear arms pact.
"The issue here is what do the Russians feel they need, but also keeping an eye on not trying to complicate the ratification process," said a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations.
Sixty-seven votes are required to ratify the treaty in the Senate, but President Barack Obama's Democratic Party now controls 59 seats. The treaty is expected to limit deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,500-to-1,600 warheads each, a reduction from a limit of 2,200 due to take effect on Dec. 31, 2012.
Obama tried unsuccessfully to resolve the U.S. missile defense issue last week by telephone with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, the senior U.S. official told McClatchy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also failed to find a solution in a call with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov.
The U.S. negotiating team, led by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, returned to Washington from Geneva Monday for consultations with top officials aimed at finding a formula to break the impasse, the senior U.S. official said.
"We don't think that these problems are insurmountable," he said. "We are trying to find a way to manage Russian concerns."
Russian and U.S. negotiators aimed to finish the drafting a successor accord to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, C-START, before it expired on Dec. 5, but a number of issues have hampered completion of the talks.
The latest complication centers on Obama's decision to deploy U.S. anti-missile interceptors in Romania as part of a plan to defend Europe against medium-range missile attacks from Iran.
Iran has missiles capable of reaching parts of Europe, and U.S. and European officials charge that it's developing nuclear weapons, an allegation that Iranian officials deny.
Obama's decision replaced a Bush administration plan to place a tracking radar in Poland and 20 interceptors in the Czech Republic to shield the U.S. from a limited Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile strike. Iran currently doesn't have such missiles.
Russia hailed Obama for canceling the Bush plan, but Moscow has raised the same objection to Obama's plan, contending that the medium-range interceptors that would be deployed in Romania could threaten Russia's long-range nuclear missile force.
"Russia has serious questions regarding the true purpose of the U.S. missile defense in Romania," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement Friday. "That is why we will consistently oppose any dubious unilateral actions in the missile defense field."
Experts said that the initial deployment of 20 SM-3 interceptors in Romania wouldn't threaten Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles because the U.S. projectiles have a 900-kilometer (560 mile) range and are too slow to catch the long-range Russian missiles.
"The Standard Three Missile has a configuration that gives it a range of 900 kilometers. That doesn't get it to Russia," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and arms control expert who's with of The Brookings Institution, a center-left research group in Washington. "They will not endanger Russia's ability to have a strong robust deterrent."
Moscow, however, worries that the next generation of the missile will be fast enough to knock out its long-range weapons, a concern fueled by the absence of a treaty limiting the number of interceptors that the U.S. can deploy in Romania, Pifer and other experts said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. would "continue to work these issues with our Russian counterparts, and we will continue to try to assuage their concerns that our plans for a missile defense in Europe are in no way directed at Russia."
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