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Progress expected on U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction treaty

On the eve of Obama's arrival in Moscow, U.S. officials predict the summit with Medvedev will yield a joint statement on mutual progress toward a new treaty, even as they downplay expectations.

July 06, 2009|Christi Parsons

MOSCOW — Before President Obama had even arrived here for this week's nuclear arms talks, officials in his administration on Sunday were predicting a joint announcement from him and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that the two sides were making strides toward an arms reduction treaty.

Significant obstacles remain, however, and in the same breath White House officials downplayed expectations for today's scheduled summit.

In an interview with Russian TV broadcast over the weekend, Obama said only that he hoped to win agreement on the "framework" of a treaty during the four hours of meetings. He also emphasized the importance of sending a message of general agreement as the two sides work toward crafting a strategic arms reduction treaty to replace the one that expires in December.

"For us to send a strong signal that we want to reduce our stockpiles I think would help us internationally, to give people a sense that we're moving into a new era and we want to get beyond the Cold War," Obama told Itar-Tass TV.

Speaking to reporters Sunday, Gary Samore, the White House point man on weapons of mass destruction, said he expects Obama and Medvedev will announce progress after their meeting. But Samore acknowledged that a major issue is the continued U.S. movement toward construction of a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russian officials consider a stumbling block to the larger agreement.

Samore spoke of the missile shield in terms of an ongoing debate, referring to the "very good argument" the U.S. has to make to the Russians about why they shouldn't feel threatened by the shield project.

"Our current missile defense . . . is designed exclusively to deal with threats from countries like North Korea and Iran," Samore said. "We don't believe that it poses a threat to Russian strategic systems."

Russia still has to be convinced, he said, "so obviously parallel to these strategic arms talks, we've had discussions with the Russians about missile defense in order, we hope, to demonstrate to them that what we're doing on missile defense doesn't pose a threat to their nuclear deterrent."

Medvedev, in his own weekend interviews, did not sound open to the argument that the shield was meant to protect against North Korea and Iran.

"In terms of missile defense, Poland and the Czech Republic are one thing, Iran is a different one altogether," he said. "They are too far apart geographically."

What's more, Medvedev told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper that he considers the missile shield "interrelated" with any talks of reducing strategic weapons. Nuclear arms, he said, "do not exist by themselves, rather they exist together with the means for defending against them, that is antimissile defense."

Obama will also meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is considered the most influential figure in Moscow.

As he prepared for his visit, Obama said his overarching agenda was to "reset" relations between the two nations.

As a sign of reconciliation, Kremlin officials signaled they will formalize plans this week to allow the U.S. to use Russian airspace to reach forces in Afghanistan. That and other concessions could be announced at a news conference today after meetings between Obama and Medvedev and before a dinner with their wives.

Even as they sounded a positive note, U.S. officials were leaving room for the possibility that an agreement wouldn't be reached on a replacement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- or "New Start" -- before year's end.

That wouldn't be a tragedy, Samore said, making an extension sound like a small matter.

The "most ideal situation" would be to complete the treaty this year, he said. But if that doesn't happen, he said, "we'll have to look at arrangements to continue some of the inspection provisions, keep them enforced on a provisional basis."

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cparsons@latimes.com

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