President Obama sent two of his top national security officials to Moscow on Wednesday to clear the last hurdles to a new nuclear pact, but a revelation that U.S. missiles will soon be deployed near Russian territory could complicate the talks.
The White House said that National Security Adviser James L. Jones and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will meet with Russian officials “primarily to discuss the remaining issues left to conclude” a follow-on to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which the U.S. ambassador to Moscow predicted will be completed within weeks.
“It’s only a question of when, and I think the finish line is approaching in the very near future,” Ambassador John R. Beyrle said in an interview with the Echo of Moscow radio.
Washington and Moscow began negotiating a new treaty last spring but failed to work out all their differences by the time START expired on Dec. 5.
Verification has been one of the main problems. Russia has insisted on monitoring U.S. missile-defense interceptors being deployed in Europe but has refused U.S. inspectors access to its data on new missile tests.
In an attempt to “reset” their relationship after tensions during the Bush administration, Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed in July to cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads on each side to between 1,500 and 1,675.
The missile defense issue is one of the most sensitive for the Russians, even after Mr. Obama decided in September to scrap plans by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to deploy a system in Eastern Europe to counter a growing threat from Iran.
In a consolation to Poland, which was to host one of the sites and was unhappy with Mr. Obama’s decision, the administration agreed to deploy Patriot-type surface-to-air missiles in the country. On Dec. 11, the two NATO allies signed a prerequisite agreement on the status of U.S. troops in the former Soviet satellite ahead of the missile deployment.
However, the Patriot site was kept secret — until Wednesday, when Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said it will be about 35 miles from a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania that includes the city of Kaliningrad.
“Morag was chosen as the location long ago, but we didn’t make it public,” Mr. Klich was quoted as saying by Poland’s PAP news agency.
He insisted that the choice of the site had “no political or strategic meaning — its good infrastructure is the only reason.” He also said the missiles could arrive as soon as late March or early April at Morag, which is home to a Polish military base.
Moscow, which is protective of Kaliningrad because it is surrounded by two NATO members, is likely to react angrily to the news about Morag. That could complicate the START negotiations, though U.S. officials said it should not threaten them seriously.
“We believe it will still be conducted in good faith, and I would not think that complication will come into it,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. “It is in the interest of Russia and the United States — and the world — to see the completion of and ratification of a follow-on START agreement.”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the Patriot missiles “should be a nonissue for Russia” because “this system poses no threat to Russian defense forces, and it is a symbolic gesture of the existing U.S. security commitment to Poland.”
“Russia is not and should not be looking for excuses to blow up the new treaty,” he said. “Russia’s longer-term concern is all about potential future numbers and locations of the SM-3 interceptors in Eastern Europe that were outlined as the Obama administration’s new missile defense approach.”
Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said last week that the outstanding issues in the START negotiations included sharing of telemetry data — electronic signals sent from missile flight tests — as well as Russian demands that missile defenses be included in the new treaty.
Mr. Jones and Adm. Mullen are visiting Moscow a week after a trip by another senior U.S. official, William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs. Mr. Burns represents the United States in international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which also was discussed in his meetings and is expected to be part of the talks this week.
Washington and its Western allies want new sanctions on Iran for rejecting a proposal that would lift suspicion that it is developing a nuclear weapon under the cover of a civilian program. Russia has not been as opposed to sanctions as it has in the past, but China is resisting them, so U.S. officials hope Moscow could influence its friends in Beijing.