The United States and Russia begin talks Friday on a new agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START.
The treaty expires in December, and both sides say they are serious about reaching a deal before then. However, deep-rooted tensions between Moscow and Washington may pose a major obstacle to success.
The first step takes place Friday in Rome, where preliminary talks are set between Russian and American delegations over a new strategic arms deal some experts believe could cut the nuclear arsenals of each country to 500 warheads.
Clinton, Lavrov To Meet
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported Thursday that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will travel to Washington next month to advance the talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
As the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral responsibility to reduce their numbers, President Obama said in a speech earlier this month in Prague, the Czech capital. He reiterated a U.S. commitment "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
But with concerns that North Korea and Iran are developing their own nuclear programs, achieving the president's goal is a daunting task.
Responding to Obama's call for a nuclear-free world, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in Helsinki earlier this week that there are "serious expectations" for disarmament. Moscow has repeatedly called for arms talks with Washington; but Russia has also complicated negotiations by raising tough new demands.
Medvedev restated Russia's insistence that the agreement should apply not only to nuclear warheads, but also to the missiles, submarines and bombers that carry them. Medvedev also repeated Moscow's insistence that a deal must be linked to U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Europe — a plan that has infuriated the Kremlin. Washington says the two issues are separate.
Some analysts believe Moscow wants its relations with Washington to be based on Cold War-era issues such as arms talks as a way to sideline Western concerns over Russia's human rights record and European energy security.
Who Wants A Deal?
Military analyst Alexander Golts says he doesn't believe Russia really wants to reach a deal soon because its main interest is to show it is a great power.
"The main goal of Russia is just to have talks as long as possible," he says. "All [the] time talks are lasting, everybody can understand that Russia is equal to the [United] States, at least in [the] strategic weapons field."
The Obama administration sees arms talks as the best way to launch a new policy of engagement with Moscow, to start easing tensions that reached Cold War levels after Russia invaded its neighbor and U.S. ally Georgia last summer.
Washington says it hopes for significant progress ahead of Obama's planned trip to Moscow in July, but experts say reaching a final deal by December will be difficult.
Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says she hopes the Obama administration will use arms talks to push a broader agenda, including human rights.
"It's not surprising that arms talks were the first thing that rose to the top of the agenda, because in a lot of ways it's easier to have a conversation about fairly technical details," she says. "Is it what I wanted? Not necessarily, but I understand why they went there."