ROAR: Russia, US make last preparations for signing START treaty

Moscow and Washington have reached agreement on all the documents for a new strategic arms reduction pact and are ready to sign it in Prague, the media say, citing Russian officials.

“All the documents are ready for signing,” RIA Novosti news agency quoted a Kremlin source as saying. “Prague is considered to be the most likely venue for the signing.”

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the treaty is 20 pages long, with an extensive protocol attached, the agency said. The previous treaty, START 1, expired on December 5, 2009.

Analysts expect the treaty to be signed before the United States hosts the nuclear security summit on April 12-13. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told Ekho Moskvy radio that the documents were ready for signing and the parliaments of the two countries were preparing for the ratification.

John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, also said on March 24 that the US lawmakers “will work to ensure that the Senate can act on the treaty this year.”

However, it is up for the Russian and US presidents to decide on the exact date and place of the signing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on the same day. The two sides are “very close to having an agreement,” he noted. But they “won’t have one until President Obama and his counterpart, Mr. Medvedev, have a chance to speak again,” he added.

The Russian embassy in Prague has notified Czech President Vaclav Klaus about the intention of the US and Russia to sign the new deal on April 8 in Prague, the media say. Medvedev will visit Slovakia, the Czech Republic’s neighbor, on April 6-7.

Earlier, new Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich suggested the signing to be held in Kiev. The move was welcomed by Russia, but rejected by the US.

Prague is “a symbolic place” for both Moscow and Washington, Vedomosti daily said. It will allow the US President Barack Obama to demonstrate that Washington “is not leaving the region after it scrapped its plans to deploy elements of the missile defense shield,” the daily noted.

It was also in Prague in spring last year where Obama spoke about his vision of the control of nuclear weapons, the media say.

For Russia, the Czech capital has its own meaning. The Second World War ended for Soviet soldiers after freeing Prague on May 9, 1945, Margelov told the paper.

Vremya Novostey daily, in the article headlined “Prague spring”, said that the Czech authorities have also been notified by the US about the signing. At the same time, the office of Czech President Vaclav Klaus confirmed to the paper that the Russian ambassador, Aleksey Fedotov, had informed Czech officials of the two sides’ decision to sign the historic treaty in Prague.

The exact date was mentioned, but it will be “published after the three sides reach an agreement,” the paper said, adding that Klaus “agreed with the whole plan.”

The choice of Prague demonstrates the seriousness of Obama’s foreign policy intentions, the paper said. At the same time, it may be “a kind of compensation” to the Czech Republic for scrapping plans to deploy radar,” it added, citing observers.

Prague has become the venue for the signing because of its special place on the world arena, Peter Kratochvil, deputy director of the Czech Institute of International Relations, told the paper. “The Czech Republic is an integral part of the West and at the same time it is a former member of the Communist bloc,” he said. “Also, unlike Ukraine, it is a more-or-less stable country.”

Russia earlier said that it was not a principal concern as to where the treaty would be signed, the daily noted. “But Moscow hardly has any objections to Prague because the consent in this secondary issue will clearly underline the ability of Russia and the US to find compromises in the security sphere,” it opined.

Meanwhile, disagreements still remain in Czech political circles on the country’s relations with Russia, Vremya Novostey said. Last week the office of the former president Vaclav Havel reported he would visit Georgia on March 24-25.

Havel was expected to receive Georgia’s supreme award from President Mikhail Saakashvili, the daily said. During the August 2008 events in the North Caucasus, the former Czech leader “strongly supported Tbilisi” unlike current President Vaclav Klaus, who said the events “were provoked by the Saakashvili regime,” the paper stressed.

However, it became known on March 23 that the Havel’s visit had been canceled. Journalists in Prague speculated that it could be connected with “diplomatic considerations,” the daily noted.

“The meeting between Havel and Saakashvili on the eve of the expected news on choosing Prague for the signing of this most important document would provoke a fairly predictably negative reaction in Moscow,” the paper said. “It would harm the image of the Czech Republic as ‘a bridge of mutual understanding’ between the West and the East.”

The new strategic arms treaty will be signed in early April, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff Nikolay Makarov said. However, he told Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily on March 23 that Moscow still insisted on the inclusion of the US missile defense plans in the document.

The link between strategic arms and the missile defense shield was one of the main disagreements between the two sides negotiating the treaty, analysts say. The previous treaty favored the US, and this time Russia wants the document to be based on parity and stability, Makarov noted.

Observers expect to see a link between the strategic offensive weapons and the missile shield in the treaty. The final text is “mutually acceptable,” believes Aleksey Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. It was important “politically for the Americans” to sign it, he told online newspaper.

“It is a treaty on cutting US forces, and they wanted to minimize problems,” the analyst said. “And we, in exchange, have minimized control, which we already disliked,” he added.

The stumbling block was the “constant presence” of inspectors at the plant in Russia’s city of Votkinsk, where Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles are produced, Arbatov noted. The new treaty does not contain this condition, he said, adding that Russia’s diplomacy “has won a great victory.”

Sergey Borisov, RT
Russian Opinion and Analytics Review