Saturday, November 28, 2009

MINSK, Belarus | The United States and Russia will sign a deal this year to cut vast Cold War arsenals of nuclear weapons but may miss an early December deadline, a Kremlin source said Friday.

Diplomats from the two biggest nuclear powers are trying to prepare a new agreement on cutting atomic weapons before the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires Dec. 5.

The new accord will be signed “in a European country” in December, the Kremlin source said in Minsk, where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was meeting with regional leaders.

“We may not be able to do it by Dec. 5,” said the Kremlin source, when asked when the leaders would sign the deal. The source did not give a reason for the delay.

In Washington, a U.S. official said outstanding issues between the United States and Russia have made it less likely that a deal would be finished by the deadline, and a “bridging” pact would be worked on if the deadline were not met.

“Both the negotiating teams recognize that first and foremost they need to keep working to try to finalize a deal that is comprehensive - however, should time run out, efforts shall be made to provide for a bridging agreement or understanding,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

President Obama and Mr. Medvedev are both due to make visits in Europe in the next few weeks and diplomats say the two sides are trying to agree on a time when the leaders can meet to sign the deal.

When asked about when the signing would take place, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to give a date, saying the deal “will be signed in accordance with the orders of the presidents based on the time frames set by them.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev said in a joint statement on April 1 that they intended to find a replacement for the deal by the time START-1 expired, a step the Kremlin and White House say would “reset” relations after the friction and rows of recent years.

“This treaty is a great move ahead and will improve relations between the United States and Russia,” said Roland Timerbayev, a former Soviet ambassador and nuclear arms negotiator. He said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the significance of missing the Dec. 5 deadline.

Hopes of a deal to replace START-1, signed just months before the Soviet Union broke up, rose in September when Mr. Obama said the United States would roll back a plan to deploy a European missile shield that Moscow had bitterly opposed.

Russia has so far refused to support U.S. calls for the threat of sanctions against Iran, but diplomats say that cooperation between the two former Cold War foes on Iran is good, setting the tone for a START deal.

Negotiators in Geneva have been battling a variety of complex technical questions to thrash out an agreement.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev agreed in July to cut the number of deployed nuclear weapons by about a third from current levels to 1,500-1,675 each.

After the cuts - which have to be made within seven years of a new treaty taking effect - the United States and Russia would still have enough firepower to destroy the world several times over.

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