Third Round of START Talks

Third-round talks between the U.S. and Russia started yesterday in Geneva with the goal of working toward a replacement treaty for the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), due to expire in December. The hope is to reach consensus on the agreement before President Barack Obama’s upcoming state visit to Russia in early July, so that interim results can be jointly announced then.

The current round of talks could prove to be more challenging than the first two, though, due to a Kremlin statement released on Saturday linking progress in the talks to the planned U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe. Russia’s opposition to the missile-defense system is well-known, but this is the first time it has tied its demands for the U.S. to abandon the system to Russian cooperation on a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty.

The original START agreement called for bilateral cuts in the number of “strategic warhead deployments” to 6,000, and limited each country to no more than 1,600 “strategic delivery systems.” A new agreement would most likely lead to deeper nuclear arsenals cuts, based on the joint announcement made by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev following their April meeting in London.

The Obama administration hasn’t yet decided whether or not it will continue to pursue the missile-defense plans, which were strongly advocated for by the Bush administration.

The Kremlin’s announcement may stall or even block efforts to come up with an agreement for a successor treaty to START. The principle danger in not having a new treaty in place by December would be to leave both sides without an operational verification system, with each unable to inspect the other’s stockpiles of nuclear warheads.

Ultimately, Obama will have to make a choice, either to continue in the same direction as the Bush administration regarding missile defense, or instead to invest that energy into efforts toward global disarmament and non-proliferation.

A successor treaty to the existing START agreement is an essential first step towards reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world and turning the vision Obama expressed in Prague into a reality. Clarifying his stance on missile defense in Eastern Europe seems like a small short-term concession for Obama to make in order to secure his longer-term goal.

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