The United States and Russia have agreed that a new arms control treaty will mention a link between offensive nuclear arms and defenses against them, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow said Thursday, signaling a possible breakthrough in arms reduction talks.
Russian foreign policy experts said Ambassador John Beyrle's statement in his blog post could mean that U.S.-Russian talks will soon produce a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START.
The Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment, but some Russian analysts said Beyrle's statement paved the way for a quick signing of the nuclear arms deal after months of tough bargaining.
President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev linked the two issues in a statement in July, but Washington had resisted Russia's push for language in the START successor treaty explicitly connecting them.
Moscow and Washington had hoped to sign a new treaty by mid-December. The delay apparently was caused by Russia's suspicions about U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe.
Washington has said the anti-missile system would defend against a threat from Iran, but Moscow views it as upsetting the strategic balance between Russian and Western nuclear forces.
Beyrle's statement indicated the U.S. stance has shifted.
"The treaty deals with offensive, not defensive systems, but since we acknowledge a logical link between them, our presidents have agreed that the treaty will contain a provision on the interconnection between strategic offensive and defensive weapons," he said in his Russian-language blog.
While the language may please Moscow, any restrictions on missile defenses would likely make it difficult for the White House to win approval for the treaty in the U.S. Senate.
Beyrle's statement apparently reflects an attempt by Washington to overcome Russia's suspicions of the U.S. missile defense plans. It follows Tuesday's comments by Russia's top military officer, who said that those plans threaten Russia's security.
Gen. Nikolai Makarov's comments were the strongest yet on the revamped U.S. missile effort and showed that the arms control talks were in serious trouble.
Sergei Karaganov of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy called the agreement on language a breakthrough.
"As far as I understand it, the main conceptual problem was the link" between offensive and defensive systems, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Karaganov, who is close to the Kremlin, said some technical issues remain, but the two sides are "absolutely close to concluding a treaty."
Obama's decision to scrap Bush administration plans for missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic pleased the Kremlin, which had opposed those plans.
But Russia has become increasingly suspicious in recent weeks of a revamped plan by the Obama administration to place sea- and land-based interceptors around Europe. Romania last week approved a proposal to place anti-ballistic missile interceptors in the country as part of the redesigned American missile shield.
Beyrle said in his post that the U.S. plans to deploy missile interceptors to fend off threats from the Middle East are no threat to Russia.
"They are intended to intercept intermediate-range missiles. Russia lacks such missiles, while Iran has been working actively to build them," Beyrle said.
Dmitry Trenin, the head of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment think tank, said Beyrle's statement showed Russia and the U.S. are finally closing in on a deal.
He argued that the mention of a link wouldn't constrain the development of U.S. missile defenses and shouldn't be too serious an obstacle for Senate ratification.
"The treaty won't limit the offensive weapons, Russia isn't seeking that," he said. Trenin added mentioning the link is essential to persuade hawks in Russia's military to accept the deal.
Trenin predicted the new treaty will be signed before April's summit in Washington, intended to review global nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Both Russia and the U.S. want to show they are serious about reducing their nuclear arsenals to help discourage would-be nuclear powers from developing atomic weapons.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, said the link between offensive and defensive strategic hardware became more important for Russia after the U.S. unveiled plans for its new missile defense system.
He called Beyrle's statement "very important," adding that it "sounds much more definite than anybody could expect."
He said that, after months of waiting, a deal may finally be close. "It looks like those remaining issues are more of a political than technical dimensions, so it's about political will and I think that this will be shown," Lukyanov said.
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