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Russian parliament approves arms pact with U.S.

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s parliament approved the first nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States in nearly a decade on Wednesday, voting to ratify the pact at the center of improved ties between the former Cold War foes.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev at the APEC Summit in Yokohama November 14, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young

The Federation Council, Russia’s upper parliament chamber, unanimously passed a bill required for ratification of the New START treaty, which Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed in April 2010.

The treaty, approved by the U.S. Senate last month and by Russia’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday, will commit the countries to ceilings of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in seven years.

It limits each side to 700 deployed long-range missiles and bombers and establishes verification rules, absent since the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) expired in 2009, enabling them to keep tabs on each other’s arsenals.

“The alternative is an uncontrolled arms race,” the head of the Federation Council’s defense committee, Viktor Ozerov, told fellow lawmakers before the vote. All 137 deputies present in the 186-seat chamber supported ratification.

The warhead caps are up to 30 percent lower than those set by the 2002 Moscow Treaty and down nearly two-thirds from START I, signed in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

The 10-year treaty will leave the nations with more than enough firepower to create a nuclear catastrophe, but it sets the stage for potential talks on further cuts that could eventually include other nuclear-armed nations.

MILESTONE FOR MEDVEDEV

The upper house vote sends the ratification bill to Medvedev for his signature. The treaty will enter force with an exchange of ratification documents by U.S. and Russian officials, expected within weeks.

Arms control experts say Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal is likely to be near or below the limits set by the treaty within half a decade. Russian lawmakers say the pact will save the country cash it needs for non-military purposes.

The treaty “without a doubt answers to the interests of our country,” said Mikhail Margelov, the chamber’s foreign affairs committee chairman.

It is crucial to the recent “reset” in long-strained Russian-American relations and “bears witness to trust between the two countries,” he said.

The treaty is a milestone in the presidency of Medvedev, who has embraced Obama’s campaign to improves ties, which hit a low during Russia’s war against pro-Western Georgia in 2008.

With support from Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the dominant partner in Russia’s ‘tandem’ leadership, approval by the Kremlin-controlled parliament was certain.

But lawmakers in both countries used the ratification process to set out conflicting interpretations of some aspects of the treaty, opening the door to tension over future deployments.

The main dispute is over missile defense, an irritant in relations between Moscow and Washington since President Ronald Reagan’s unrealized plan for an extensive “Star Wars” missile shield for protection against Soviet nuclear might.

Moscow fears a U.S. missile shield could eventually weaken a reduced Russian strategic offensive nuclear arsenal, upsetting the balance of power.

The treaty sets no formal limits on missile defenses, because such restrictions would have doomed the pact in the U.S. Senate. But in its ratification law and a declaration, Russia’s parliament stressed Moscow could abandon the pact if missile defenses or other deployments threatened Russia’s security.

The United States and NATO are seeking to soothe Russia by promising cooperation in the development of a European missile shield. Medvedev and Putin have warned of a “new arms race” and countermeasures if Russia is not given a satisfactory role and feels threatened by Western missile defenses.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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