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Friday, January 14, 2011

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Russia nears arms pact approval, warns on pullout
By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia's parliament moved closer to approving a landmark arms reduction treaty with Washington Friday by amending domestic legislation to stress that Moscow could withdraw from the pact if it felt threatened by the West.

The amendments required for Russia to ratify the New START treaty do not change the pact itself and were introduced before the second of three ratification votes in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

The U.S. Senate included its own interpretations of the treaty -- the centrepiece of a "reset" that has improved long-strained relations between Moscow and Washington -- when it voted to ratify it last month.

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New START will commit each side to ceilings of 1,550 warheads on deployed strategic missiles and bombers within seven years and establish verification rules to replace those that expired in 2009 with the 1991 START I treaty.

Analysts say rejection of the treaty by Russia's parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, is out of the question. The amendments enabled Russia to underscore how it views the pact.

Duma international affairs committee chairman Konstantin Kosachyov said the amendments would "restore balance" after the U.S. Senate irked Russia with its interpretations of the treaty.

The amendments stipulate that Russia could withdraw if military deployments or even plans by the United States or NATO jeopardize its security.

They highlight lingering rifts over U.S. plans for a European anti-missile shield and Russian concerns over other weapons it fears the United States or NATO could deploy.

A missile system that weakens Russia's nuclear arsenal would "force us to use the article of the treaty that provides for the withdrawal of a state that feels violated in terms of security," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Duma, Interfax reported.

RIGHT TO WITHDRAW

The Duma's warnings of a possible withdrawal are largely a matter of emphasis, because the treaty itself includes broad language allowing either side to pull out if it decides its "supreme interests" are threatened.

Russia stressed its right to withdraw because of concerns over the U.S. anti-missile shield in a statement it adopted when Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama signed the treaty last April.

"The Russians are using their law on ratification to reflect their concerns, and it really is an answer to some of the language in the U.S. Senate ratification resolution," said Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The U.S. Senate stressed that a clause in the pact's preamble acknowledging an "interrelationship" between strategic offensive and defensive arms placed no legal constraint on U.S. missile defense plans.

The Duma ratification law says the points in the preamble are "indisputable" and must not be ignored.

"The most important thing is, the treaty is being ratified without a requirement for amendment," Pifer said.

But disputes over interpretation suggest the United States will have to work hard to keep a wary Russia satisfied, particularly if it is to secure further cuts.

In approving the treaty, the U.S. Senate ordered Obama to seek talks with Moscow within a year on cutting the former Cold War foes' arsenals of shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons, whose numbers are lopsided in Russia's favor.

Lavrov cast a shadow over those hopes by signaling for the second straight day that cuts beyond those to be made under New START cannot be expected in the near term.

Further negotiations should include a range of different weapons and "can be held after the START treaty is executed," Lavrov told lawmakers, according to Interfax.

The Duma is expected to give the treaty its final backing on January 25. Approval by the upper parliament house -- the last step before Russia and the United States exchange documents putting the pact into force -- could come this month.

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