Russia, U.S. agree to maintain expiring nuclear arms pact

The Obama administration and the Kremlin agreed Friday to continue the provisions of their keystone nuclear arms control treaty after its expiration today while they try to negotiate a follow-on agreement.

The two governments issued a statement saying that, because of their desire for stability, “we express our commitment, as a matter of principle, to continue to work together in the spirit of the START treaty following its expiration.” The governments cited a “firm intention” to approve a new treaty at the earliest possible date.

President Obama’s national security advisor, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr., had raised hopes for a deal on the pact, telling Fox News this week that the president might be able to sign a new treaty when he is in Europe next week to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

U.S. and Russian negotiators, meeting in Geneva, have completed almost all of the text for the new treaty, Jones said.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the two sides “continue to make progress.” However, ratification of any new deal by the Senate and the Russian Duma is likely to take months.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, was put in place in 1991, five months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been the central pillar of the nuclear relationship between Russia and the United States.

The Obama administration has been eager to craft a new deal to help improve its relationship with Russia and to open the way for several other arms control and nonproliferation deals it hopes to conclude.

Obama administration officials view arms control as a potential bright spot in a foreign policy record burdened by Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and the Mideast.

Though U.S. officials once said they hoped to conclude the new treaty before START expired, it has been clear for months that prospects were not good.

One arms control analyst, Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the missed deadline was “disappointing but far from a tragedy.”

But he predicted that Obama’s agenda would be hurt if the new deal is not negotiated by May, when world powers are to meet to consider changes to a broader arms control pact, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If Russia and the United States haven’t agreed to a new two-way deal by then, other nations “will be far less likely to support the ambitious agenda” that Obama has laid out, Young said.

The treaty is expected to cut the upper limit of warheads for each country by one third, to 1,500 to 1,675 warheads.