Russia says it is ready for more arms cuts

Sunday, February 8, 2009

MOSCOW -- Russia is ready for more nuclear weapons cuts and welcomes President Obama's push for talks on an arms reduction treaty, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday.

Russia is believed to have fewer warheads than the U.S. and has indicated it wants a binding deal on further reductions, but Lavrov's remarks were the clearest statement in the issue since Obama took office last month.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has called on the Obama administration to abandon policies set by George W. Bush, including plans for a missile shield based in former Soviet satellite states and the expansion of NATO into Georgia and Ukraine. Lavrov said Russia had long pressed the Bush administration in vain for a clear response to proposals for replacing the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, when it expires in December.

On Thursday, a spokesman for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a replacement treaty for START would be put on a fast track, and that the Obama administration was committed to cuts but had not decided how deep.

"We are ready to go further on the path of reductions and limitations," Lavrov said in an interview with state-run Rossiya television, adding only the caveat that Russia's overarching goal is to ensure its security.

START limited the United States and Russia to 6,000 nuclear warheads each. In 2002, Bush and Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, agreed on a treaty that set a target of 1,700 to 2,000 deployed strategic warheads on each side by 2012.

Lavrov made no mention of specific numbers in the brief remarks. Asked about media reports claiming a reduction of up to 80 percent could be in the works, he said he had not heard them and that nothing had been confirmed officially.

The American nuclear stockpile is believed to contain about 2,300 warheads, and the Russian stockpile even lower. When the 2002 treaty was signed, many analysts said the number of Russian nuclear weapons could fall far below the target it set.

Amid increasingly sour ties with the United States under Bush, Russia poured a portion of its windfall oil revenue into its nuclear arsenal in order to keep up with its Cold War foe. Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, have boasted about Russia's arsenal and assured Russians they will be safe for decades to come.

But with Soviet-built missiles nearing the end of their service life and uncertainty about new missiles being tested, Russia has indicated it wants strict limits and an ironclad verification regime. The Kremlin has said it was frustrated by the Bush administration's aversion to binding deals and hopes for a change under Obama.

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