Leaders commit to nuclear reductions

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By Roger Snodgrass

The presidents of the United States and Russia came out of their first face-to-face meeting at the London G20 summit with a major agreement, instructing negotiators to get to work immediately on a treaty that would continue to reduce nuclear weapons.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START-1, expires at the end of the year, and many in the arms control community have expressed concerns that there are few signs of the diplomatic machinery that will be required to renew or extend its safeguards.

A senior administration official reminded the press on Wednesday, shortly after the announcement by the two presidents, that six months ago relations between the two countries were “at a lowest point since Cold War times.”

“This document shows that we’re in a different place,” the official said in a transcript of a background session immediately after the meeting. “And there are lots of areas of agreement, and I would say, importantly lots of agreement about definitions of common threats and common interests.”

Dave Thomson, a founder of the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control and International Security, said this morning that he and others in the organization have been pushing for the last couple of years for a renegotiation of the START extension before the treaty expires.

“START-1 expires at the end of this year and that leaves no on-site verification in effect between us and Russia after that occurs,” Thomson said. “The important thing is to monitor the Moscow Treaty, which calls for a very substantial reduction of deployed strategic weapons.”

Under the Moscow Treaty, the two countries agreed to reduce deployed strategic weapons that are delivered by missiles, submarines and bombers, to a range between 1700-2200.

The United States has reached the upper level of that range already, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration. Russia is reported to have 2800 weapons.

If the on-site verification regime established by the START treaty were not extended, Thomson said, verification would be reduced to satellite and intelligence information, known as “national technical means,” as well as individual announcements made by either party.

“National technical means is not trivial,” he said. “But it’s important to codify the extended verification of the START-1 Treaty and maintain some form of on-site inspection to show the international community that we and Russia are continuing to reduce our weapons.”

Cheryl Rofer, the recent president of LACACIS, who blogs on arms control issues at Whirled View (whirledview.typepad.com), said this morning she was not completely taken by surprise because there has been enough talk about such a possibility.

What she found particularly promising was a statement by the two leaders, that “We committed our two countries to creating a nuclear free world.”

Rofer added, “There was some indication that Medvedev wasn’t ready for such a sweeping commitment, but this is an indication that the two countries are headed in the same direction and they want to get there together.”

Preliminary results on replacing the START Treaty should be ready by July, when Obama plans to visit Russia.