WASHINGTON – American and Russian officials have reached a deal to slash their nuclear arsenals after eight months of unexpectedly tough negotiations, sources close to the talks said Wednesday.
President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who ordered the negotiations that started last July, still must sign off on details of the agreement, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.
The two presidents are expected to sign a treaty in Prague, Czech Republic, next month.
The new treaty will replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 and will set limits for the number of long-range deployed nuclear warheads, as well as the numbers of nuclear-capable bombers and missiles.
The two final obstacles were agreement on how to verify the size of the nuclear arsenals and the issue of missile defense. Neither government would explain how they solved those disagreements. They previously agreed to reduce the number of long-range nuclear warheads deployed by each nation from a ceiling of 2,200 to between 1,500 and 1,675.
The deal also would require each side to cut back their stock of strategic bombers and land- and sea-based missiles to 800, down from 1,600.
The deal is the biggest step so far in Obama’s effort to scale back the world’s nuclear arsenals, and it is to be followed later by other reductions from the United States and Russia. The U.S. and Russian arsenals represent 90 percent of the world’s total nuclear weapons.
Yet the difficulty of the negotiations was sobering for administration officials who came to the job with optimism about Obama’s ambitions. Some officials, who expected the negotiations would be smooth, confided privately during the negotiations that they had misjudged the Russian eagerness to craft a replacement treaty.
U.S. officials believed going into the negotiations that they would be relatively simple because both countries seemed to agree that they did not need their arsenals at the current size.
But as the talks went on, U.S. officials found their counterparts more demanding than expected on the terms of the deal and more suspicious of U.S. intentions. The Russians seemed to believe the Americans wanted the deal more than they did, and they sought to use that fact in the negotiations, U.S. officials have said.
There also seemed to be complications arising from differences among Russian leaders themselves. In recent months, Russian leaders have expressed different views on American missile defense plans.
Moscow has been deeply concerned for years about U.S. plans for an anti-missile umbrella, fearing it could, if expanded later, neutralize Russia’s huge arsenal of offensive missiles.
Russian officials were angry about Bush administration plans for a missile-defense system that was to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. The U.S. said the shield was intended to counter Iran’s missile program, but Russian officials feared that stationing an anti-missile system in former Soviet allies would encroach on Moscow’s area of influence near its borders. Obama agreed last year to cancel the program.
One knowledgeable source said that “95 percent of the agreement has been done for a long time. It was that last 5 percent that was the doozy.”
Conservatives are likely to study closely the language on provisions for verifying that the Russians scale back their arsenal. The verification provisions are far briefer than they were during the Cold War, when the two countries had far bigger arsenals and greater fears of each other.
But the provisions remain complex enough that they consumed much of the time involved in crafting the deal, the sources said.
John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said he was optimistic that the treaty would clear the Senate. But the next round of negotiations with the Russians “will be more challenging,” he said.
Russia sought to force the United States to abandon a modified missile defense plan but ended up settling for language in the treaty saying that the size of offensive arsenals must be tied to the size of anti-missile defenses.
Success on the treaty is likely to boost Obama’s broader nonproliferation effort. The administration is aiming to convince smaller non-nuclear states that they do not need nuclear arms; this deal will strengthen U.S. arguments that the nuclear states are doing their part to reduce the world’s nuclear inventory.