Politics & Government

U.S., Russia near new treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals

A Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile launcher moves May 15 to be displayed to new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
A Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile launcher moves May 15 to be displayed to new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Maxim Shipenkov / AP

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Russian negotiators Monday began finalizing a new 10-year nuclear arms reduction treaty after President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev resolved the last major differences over a pact to cut both nations' deployed strategic nuclear warheads by about a third.

The treaty also will limit the aircraft and missiles that the U.S. and Russia could arm with nuclear weapons to between 700 and 800 each and create a new inspection and monitoring system to allow each side to detect cheating by the other.

"The negotiators are at work in Geneva right now translating agreement in principle into agreement in treaty text and protocols," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

The negotiations began the day that Obama unveiled a 2011 budget proposal to boost spending on U.S. nuclear weapons by $620 million. The plan would modernize U.S. weapons facilities and ensure that the U.S. arsenal continues to work as designed as it ages and shrinks nearly two decades into a moratorium on underground test explosions.

The push for new U.S. and Russian nuclear arms cuts and the quest for more funds for the U.S. nuclear arsenal underscore the fine line that Obama must walk to pursue the ambitious strategy he unveiled last spring to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually rid the world of them.

He must show other countries that he's serious about reducing nuclear arms if he hopes to win support for toughening the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international system to curb the spread of nuclear arms, at a conference in May.

At the same time, Republican senators whose support Obama needs to ratify the new pact with Russia have indicated that they could withhold their votes unless he boosted funds to overhaul U.S. warheads and modernize U.S. nuclear arms facilities.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested in Jan. 28 speech that GOP votes also hinge on how the senators regard the new treaty's inspection and monitoring system.

"Verification issues will play an important role in Senate consideration," he said.

The new verification system would be less intrusive than was the Cold War-era arrangement, which ended in December with the expiration of the 1991 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

The senior administration official said the old system was designed when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union aimed thousands of nuclear weapons at each other.

"Think about the size that the Russian and the American nuclear arsenals were 15 years ago," he said. "That required a very different kind of monitoring regime than 15 years later, when both sides have reduced by tenfold the number of weapons in their arsenals."

"We're confident that the verification and inspection mechanism in this treaty is sufficient to allow both of us to verify," he said.

The final differences were resolved by National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in mid-January talks with their Russian counterparts in Moscow, and Obama and Medvedev affirmed the outlines of the deal last Wednesday in a telephone conversation.

The new pact would limit both nations' deployed strategic warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675, restrictions announced by Obama and Medvedev in April, and would remain in force for 10 years.

A 2002 accord negotiated by the Bush administration requires both sides to reduce their deployed warheads to no more than 2,200 by Dec. 31, 2012, when that pact will expire.

The U.S. agreed to a Russian demand to eliminate in the new verification system a prohibition on encrypting telemetry data transmitted to and from new ballistic missiles during test fights, the senior administration official said.

The U.S. has other means of collecting that information, even as the Russians replace their aging intercontinental ballistic missiles with new models, said the official and several independent experts familiar with the negotiations.

"There is no prohibition (in the treaty) on the development or testing of new types of ballistic missiles. That's what telemetry data is useful in monitoring," said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association.

Of greater importance, Kimball said, is that Russian and U.S. inspectors will for the first time be able to count the number of warheads on the other's missiles and bombers, instead of using the less reliable method of calculating them based on the number of "delivery vehicles" each side deployed.

The U.S. has agreed to allow Russia to load multiple warheads onto its new land-based and submarine-launched strategic missiles. That will allow Moscow to field roughly the same number of warheads as does the U.S., which has many more launchers than its former rival, the senior administration official said.

"The Russians have a smaller number of missiles," he said. "It's inevitable that they will put more (warheads) on their missiles."

The Russians, meanwhile, agreed to a U.S. demand that submarines and aircraft that have been converted from carrying nuclear weapons to carrying advanced conventional arms not be counted against the limits on nuclear delivery systems.


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