By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Russian negotiators will hold talks this year on issues ranging from missile defense to cyber security, hoping to set the stage for a renewed arms control push once elections are over in both countries, the top U.S. arms negotiator said on Thursday.
Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control, said a year after the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia that the United States was still committed to returning to the negotiating table to discuss cuts in strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
But with Europe working on a nuclear deterrence review, elections in Russia and the United States, and Moscow largely satisfied with nuclear stockpile levels following the New START treaty, Tauscher said the timing was not right for a new round of nuclear talks.
"We would like to get back to talks ... but I think we're sanguine about the fact that they're not ready to do it," she told defense writers. "So what we've decided to do is to multitask and to use this next six to eight months to do these ... strategic stability talks."
Tauscher, who would lead the talks with her Russian counterpart, said the two sides agreed in December to focus on 13 topic areas and to meet at least monthly and talk every few days in an effort to identify common concerns, threats and points of agreement.
The issues include conventional forces in Europe, piracy, cyber security, missile defense and other areas where there is a considerable amount of common interest and agreement but some threat as well. The aim is to define what the two sides mean by strategic stability and what steps they must take to achieve it.
"We're not wasting this year, which is pretty much consumed by ... things that are going to distract people," Tauscher said. "We'll get that work done, and as soon as we get the opening subsequent to their election and perhaps even subsequent to ours, off we go."
Tauscher said the New START treaty ratified last February had been an important step in improving U.S. and Russian relations, which had soured as a result of U.S. efforts to build a missile defense system in Europe and other disagreements.
The accord commits both sides to reduce their deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 within seven years. While the reduction was modest, the treaty revived much of the inspection and verification system of the original START strategic arms treaty.
The United States has signaled an interest in further nuclear cuts, in part to cut costs. A strategic review released last week to help guide spending reductions at the Pentagon said it was possible that U.S. deterrence goals could be achieved with a smaller nuclear arsenal.
The review was guided by conclusions in a near-complete Pentagon study on how to implement the administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The classified document also makes recommendations about changes that should be made in future nuclear policy.
U.S. President Barack Obama has endorsed a long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, while seeking $80 billion over 10 years to revitalize the nation's nuclear weapons complex to provide confidence the aging arsenal will work.
Tauscher said the spending was a necessary part of achieving deeper cuts in the U.S. nuclear stockpile because it would give Washington the confidence it needed to eliminate many of its underplayed warheads, which are kept as a hedge in case some weapons do not work.
"As you take weapons down, mostly you're probably going to take down what we call the hedge weapons first," she said. "You have to have a responsive infrastructure to do that."
While ties with Moscow have improved as a result of the New START treaty, the Obama administration's effort to build a missile defense system in Europe continues to be a source of friction in the relationship, Tauscher said.
After he took office in 2009, Obama abandoned former President George W. Bush's plan for a European missile defense shield and replaced it with the so-called phased adaptive approach.
The Obama system relied on smaller missile interceptors initially based on ship and later on the ground in Poland and Romania along with a radar system in Turkey.
Washington says the system is aimed at countering a missile threat from Iran, but Russia is concerned it could be used to undermine Moscow's nuclear deterrent. Russia has demanded assurances that Tauscher said the United States could not give without limiting or eliminating parts of the system.
"The only way they're going to be reassured that ... the system itself does not undercut their strategic deterrent is to sit with us in the tent in NATO and see what we're doing," she said.
"So is it a political leap of faith? Yes. Are they ready to do it? No," she said. "But we're hoping that these strategic stability talks over the next eight months will start to kind of loosen these old ties that have been binding everybody."
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)