Medvedev: Washington must ease Russian concern about missile defense to proceed with nuke cuts

21.06.2009 - Moscú - Pressenza IPA

AP News – Medvedev lifted hopes for progress when President Barack Obama visits Moscow July 6-9 for talks focusing on replacing the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December.

Launching the talks was part of Obama’s efforts to improve ties with Russia, which plunged to a post-Cold War low under the previous U.S. administration.

U.S. and Russian arms negotiators have met several times in the last two months to prepare for the Moscow summit, with much of the discussion revolving around the missile defense system the U.S. had planned to install in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Medvedev stopped short of demanding the system be scrapped, but indicated it remains a strong irritant.

“We cannot agree with U.S. plans to create a global missile defense system,” he said in a statement released by the Kremlin. “I would like to emphasize that the proposed cuts are only possible if the U.S. relieves Russian concerns. In any case, the link between strategic offensive and defensive weapons must be clearly fixed in the treaty.”

Medvedev didn’t say what specific steps Russia expects the U.S. to take to assuage Moscow’s concerns, but the wording of his statement indicated readiness for a compromise. He did not refer to the missile system when speaking to reporters after meeting Dutch leaders.

Moscow wants “verifiable and real reductions” of weapons,” he said. “We are ready to cut our strategic delivery vehicles by several times in comparison with START I,” he added, referring to the 1991 treaty. He said the number of warheads should be slashed below the figure agreed seven years ago when the U.S. and Russia decided to cut the maximum number to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012.

Moscow and Washington have long argued over what weapons should be subject to cuts. The United States is prepared to count only the warheads ready for launch, while Russia wants to count those in storage as well.

The U.S. also plans to swap nuclear warheads for conventional explosives on some long-range ballistic missiles. Medvedev reaffirmed Russia’s opposition to the plan, saying it causes a “serious concern” and may “damage strategic stability.”

An agreement with the Obama administration should be “specific, concrete and binding,” and be enshrined in a single document, he added.

Medvedev said Moscow expects relations with the U.S. to improve under Obama. “I hope that a new, more favorable and trusting form will be given to these relations under the new administration,” he said.

An arms control deal would be the centerpiece of a new beginning in U.S.-Russian relations, which Medvedev acknowledged had eroded in recent years.

It also might smooth the way for Moscow and Washington to work together to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

On the other hand, failure to negotiate a replacement for START, which ends Dec. 5, would leave the two countries unable to inspect and verify each other’s stockpile of nuclear warheads.

Obama’s engagement with the Russians marks a sharp reversal from policies of the Bush administration, which was disinclined to take up deep arms control negotiations and had angered Moscow with its intention to install the missile defense system in eastern Europe.

Obama has delayed those plans while assuring Moscow the system was aimed against a potential threat from Iran, not Russia.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated Moscow’s opposition to the defense shield may have softened as it became more concerned about the development of Iranian nuclear capabilities. Gates said the Russians were persuaded that Iran’s nuclear program was more advanced than previously thought in the Kremlin.

_____

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

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