US, Russia race for new arms agreement

The delegations are working marathon hours in Geneva to resolve differences over verification and to settle other details of an agreement that would reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads, missiles, bombers and submarines to their lowest levels in a half century. A mostly complete text has been written and translated, and there have been discussions about where to hold a signing ceremony. But it appears unlikely that they will complete their work by the time the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, known as Start, expires, or that it can be ready for President Obama to sign when he visits Europe next week.

As recently as this week, officials in Geneva were talking about a signing ceremony in Reykjavik, Iceland. But a White House official, said that “it’s not going to happen” next week and that negotiators were now aiming for the end of the year. “We are working this hard, but it will only get done if it is a good agreement that advances our national interests,” the official said.

The two sides appear close on the question of limits. Obama and President Dmitri A Medvedev had already narrowed the range for a cap on warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 during a meeting in July, down from about 2,200 each side has now. They are likely to agree to lower the ceiling on delivery vehicles — intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-based missiles and strategic bombers — to below 800, from 1,600, according to an American official, although that would not result in significant reductions because the US has about 800 and Russia about 620.

The most significant differences center on verification and monitoring. “There’s been a huge amount of progress just in the last week,” said the US official. But “there’s going to have to be political heavy lifting in the next few days,” he added.

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