Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to begin talks with Russia on a new treaty to reduce stockpiles of nuclear warheads. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
Hillary Clinton to head US efforts to reduce warheads to about 1,000.
Munich and Moscow - The Obama administration is looking for a quick deal between the US and Russia to more than halve their nuclear weapons stockpiles, reversing the Bush White House's refusal to be bound by international treaties.
Diplomats and officials say they are optimistic Washington and Moscow can quickly agree to cut warheads to about 1,000.
Robert Wood, a US state department spokesman, told reporters in Washington that the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wanted to launch a new initiative with the Russians, who are keen to revive the arms control agenda that languished under George Bush.
Barack Obama is reported to have quietly sent Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and security policy guru, to Moscow last month to test the waters.
The 1991 Start treaty on strategic nuclear weapons between the former superpower foes comes up for renewal at the end of this year.
Wood said the US effort to replace Start would be "put on a fast track". It is understood Russia would welcome this because its nuclear weapons are decaying and upgrading them is costly; and because nuclear talks with the US satisfy the Kremlin's desire to be treated as a great power.
"The chances for a fresh start look good," said the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who met Clinton in Washington this week. "Working towards disarmament is one of this administration's priorities ... It is encouraging that the new US administration is preparing specific projects in this field: a successor agreement to the Start treaty on strategic nuclear weapons with the Russians."
Sergei Ivanov, Russia's deputy prime minister and former defence minister, may broach the topic this weekend with a high-powered US team at a major security conference in Munich. Russia's foreign ministry has welcomed the Obama initiative as "very important" and a "fresh signal".
Experts have warned that any US-Russian negotiations would likely be long and difficult.
"This is a big step forward compared to Bush. But the devil is in the details," said Ruben Sergeyev, a Moscow-based military analyst. "There are lots of unresolved issues. Do you count just the warheads or also the delivery systems?"
Russia has an estimated 3,081 warheads that can be delivered from submarines, heavy bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As well as its formidable nuclear arsenal, the US, unlike Russia, has a new generation of lethal non-nuclear cruise missiles that experts believe would have to be factored into any talks.
The US vice president, Joe Biden, is to deliver the first big foreign and security policy speech from the Obama team in Munich tomorrow. Diplomats expect him to underline the new administration's commitment to nuclear disarmament and multilateralism.
The prospects for a quick conclusion on nuclear arms are bound up with a host of other disputes between the US and Russia. Moscow may balk at cutting its arsenal unless the Pentagon abandons its plans to put elements of its missile shield in central Europe - specifically Poland and the Czech Republic - close to Russia's borders.
The Americans are keen to enlist Russian help for the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in efforts to make Iran give up uranium enrichment. Russia has promised to facilitate the transport of non-lethal goods to Afghanistan.