Fresh START by the end of 2009: mission (im)possible

Despite strong doubts in Moscow and Washington that a new nuclear arms reduction deal (START) will not be signed by the year’s end, an official spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry remains hopeful.

Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama are expected to meet on the sidelines of the climate conference in Copenhagen, to discuss progress on START, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Nesterenko has said there is still a chance the US-Russia treaty could be finalized within a few hours.

“We very much hope that the outstanding issues will be resolved in the near future, probably within hours. The US and Russian presidents are planning to discuss the progress and outlook of the talks in Copenhagen on Friday,” Nesterenko said.

Sources within the American administration also say that Washington and Moscow may agree in principle on a new START treaty while meeting on the sidelines of the summit in Copenhagen.

If Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama manage to reach accord on the remaining issues over arms control, it will be up to negotiating groups to finalize the deal in the coming days, Reuters news agency reported, citing an anonymous American official.

Meanwhile, an unnamed Kremlin official has been quoted by Russia’s Kommersant newspaper as saying that Washington and Moscow are unlikely to finalize the new arms reduction treaty by the end of the year as hoped, as the two sides are still grappling over a few key differences.

Russia and the United States are working to replace the first START treaty, signed by then-Presidents Gorbachev and Bush in 1991. The treaty limited the number of nuclear weapons the countries may have and their means of delivery.

The deadline has been shifted several times – from December 5, when the previous deal expired, to this Friday, December 18, when the US and Russian presidents are expected to meet in Copenhagen.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made it clear earlier this week that that the deal would neither be signed at the summit in Denmark, nor in any other European country.

“We are not going to visit neighboring countries within the framework of the trip,” Gibbs said when answering questions from journalists on Wednesday, the newspaper reports.

Earlier, anonymous state department sources said the talks would continue next year. Moscow appears optimistic when commenting on the current state of the negotiations over the treaty.

“We continue to move forward regarding key issues, as well as regarding preparations of the document itself. We do not dramatize any disagreements and difficulties. Both delegations are working very cohesively,” Russian Presidential Aide Sergey Prikhodko said on Tuesday.

A Kremlin official quoted by the Kommersant newspaper said the deal would need to be sealed by May 2010, when a UN conference on nuclear non-proliferation is expected to take place.

In the meantime, RT political commentator Peter Lavelle thinks that the new negotiations should not be rushed, as it is more important to reach a high-quality agreement.

“We have to show that non-proliferation can work again. The United States abandoned non-proliferation for 8 years. We have to get the world used to it again. And the two most important countries with nuclear weapons have to lead,” Lavelle told RT. “And I think they are very much leading.”

Watch Peter Lavelle's interview