START Stalls; Talks Continue

By Collina, Tom Z. | Arms Control Today, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

START Stalls; Talks Continue


Collina, Tom Z., Arms Control Today


Despite repeated pledges by their leaders and other top officials to finish "before the end of the year," Russia and the United States failed to meet their self-imposed deadline for completing a successor to START. But President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to keep talking and predicted near-term success. "I'm confident that [the new treaty] will be completed in a timely fashion," Obama said in public remarks after a Dec. 18 meeting with Medvedev in Copenhagen. Medvedev replied, "I hope that we will be able to do it in a quite brief period of time." No new deadline was set, although talks are expected to resume in Geneva in mid-January, according to the Department of State.

After missing an earlier deadline of Dec. 5, when START'S 15-year term expired, there was much speculation that agreement would be reached within weeks. The two governments issued a joint statement on Dec. 4 pledging "to continue to work together in the spirit of the START Treaty following its expiration" and expressing a "firm intention to ensure that a new treaty on strategic arms enter into force at the earliest possible date."

Medvedev and Obama later announced plans to meet on the sidelines of global climate talks in Copenhagen on Dec. 18, raising expectations for progress on START. Officials' statements that the talks were advancing fueled media speculation. "We count on resolving all the remaining questions in the very near future, if not hours," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told reporters early on Dec. 18, according to Reuters. A senior U.S. official said in Washington Dec. 17 that Obama and Medvedev could reach an agreement in principle in Copenhagen, leaving negotiators to finalize a deal later, Reuters reported. Interfax news service quoted an unidentified diplomatic source as saying, "The provisions of a new START agreement are agreed and there will be an official announcement in the near future."

Indications that agreement would prove elusive began to surface Dec. 17. "It's high time to get rid of excessive suspiciousness," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, according to the Associated Press (AP). "In the last couple of days we have noticed some slowing down in the position of U.S. negotiators in Geneva," Lavrov said. "They explain this by the need to receive additional instructions. But our team is ready for work."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied Washington was dragging its feet but said at a Dec. 18 press briefing, "We want something that works for both sides. We're going to work on this agreement until we get it right... [IJt doesn't make sense to get something just for the sake of getting it if it doesn't work for both sides."

With nothing to sign at their press conference Dec. 18, the two leaders put their failure to reach agreement into a positive light. Obama said, "We've been making excellent progress. We are quite close to an agreement." Medvedev said, "[0]ur positions are very close, and almost all the issues that we've been discussing for the last month are almost closed. And there are certain technical details which we can encounter, many agreements which require further work."

Supporting the view that the negotiations are nearing completion but that significant issues remain, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, said Dec. 21, "I think that we should be able to sign the treaty early next year, but there are still serious difficulties," AP reported.

According to media accounts and other sources, the main unresolved issues relate to verification, in particular whether the United States would continue to have access to Russian missile flight test data, known as telemetry. Under START, the parties agreed to exchange telemetrie data after each flight test, along with information needed to interpret the data, and agreed not to jam or encrypt such data. …

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