The United States and Russia have agreed on the broad outlines of a deal to replace a major Cold-War era arms control agreement and are trying to work out remaining technical issues, U.S. officials say.
The U.S. administration hopes that President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, will be able to sign a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty when Obama travels to Europe to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10.
A new agreement would be a step toward the Obama administration's promise to work toward a nuclear-free world and could offer momentum for other arms control and nonproliferation goals. It would also illustrate improving relations with Russia at a time when Washington is looking for cooperation on issues including reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Obama and Medvedev agreed at a Moscow summit in July to cut the number of nuclear warheads each possesses to between 1,500 and 1,675 within seven years as part of a broad new treaty. The existing START treaty, which set a limit of 6,000 warheads each, expires Dec. 5.
The remaining issues in negotiations involve procedures for the two countries to verify that the other side is meeting the terms of the treaty, two administration officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. Both sides view verification procedures under the existing treaty as too onerous.
Late last month, Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, delivered in Moscow what the United States hoped would be a final package of proposals for the agreement.
Russian officials responded with a counterproposal, however, and negotiators in Geneva, led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller and Kremlin arms negotiator Anatoly Antonov, are trying to resolve the final differences.
Both sides appear to be motivated to conclude a deal quickly. Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, who follows the negotiations, said they have been difficult only because of the time pressure of the expiring treaty. Earlier negotiations, during the Bush administration, had stalled.
"I don't foresee a major problem that can't be resolved within the next four weeks," Kimball said. "Neither side wants to go without a new agreement for very long."
Negotiators already have worked through a number of contentious issues and agreed on the number of warheads, the number of delivery systems and what will count as a delivery system, officials said.
Russia had been pushing for an explicit link in the new treaty between offensive weapons and missile defense, but it is unlikely that the final deal will include any limitation on U.S. missile defense. A joint statement in July by Medvedev and Obama linked the two, but any missile defense restrictions would complicate the treaty's approval by the U.S. Senate.
Another tricky issue has been how to count nuclear-capable delivery devices such as intercontinental ballistic missiles that are armed with non-nuclear bombs. The Pentagon has sought to maintain this capacity to make long-distance precision strikes against dangerous targets. The U.S. military is unlikely to keep many ICBMs for this purpose because of the extreme cost of the missiles. A final deal might count any conventionally armed ICBMs under the limits of delivery devices.
The existing START treaty, signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush in 1991, led each country to cut its nuclear warheads by at least one-quarter, to about 6,000.
In 2002, then-presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush signed the Treaty of Moscow, which specified further cuts to between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed warheads by 2012.
Even if negotiators conclude a deal by the expiration of the existing START treaty, the new treaty will not take effect until the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate have ratified it, which could take months. For the interval, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who supports a new treaty, has introduced legislation that would give Obama authority to allow Russian inspectors at U.S. facilities.