GENEVA (Reuters) - U.S. and Russian arms control officials began on Tuesday what both sides hope will be a final push to clinch a treaty cutting their strategic nuclear arsenals, officials said.
Dozens of negotiators from each country were taking part in the START talks which resumed at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva after a 10-day break for consultations in their capitals, they said.
“The two sides are committed to concluding negotiations. What is important is that we arrive at a quality agreement,” a U.S. spokesman said.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed hope the negotiators could reach agreement within a few weeks.
“We favor the completion (of the talks) in two-three weeks,” Lavrov told reporters. “There are chances for this.”
Lavrov echoed the U.S. spokesman’s statement that the quality of the first nuclear arms reduction treaty in nearly two decades would be more important than its timing, saying: “There are no artificial deadlines.”
The world’s two largest nuclear powers are seeking a replacement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) which could ease relations at a time when major powers are pressing Iran and North Korea to meet Western demands on their nuclear programmes. The Cold War-era pact expired last December.
Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev agreed last July that the successor treaty must cut deployed nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 per side from the current 2,200. Bombers and missiles that can deliver them would be sharply limited.
Russia and the United States currently hold some 95 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads.
The Geneva talks have been shrouded in secrecy, but apparent sticking points have included verification and monitoring measures as well as Russia’s opposition to U.S. plans for missile defense facilities in eastern Europe.
A Russian diplomat in Geneva, asked whether this would be the final round, told Reuters: “We hope so, let’s keep our fingers crossed.” A draft treaty would be ready “hopefully by early April,” he said.
Obama and Medvedev would be expected to sign the treaty at a ceremony, but details on the venue and timing have yet to be worked out, according to the Russian diplomat. “It depends on many factors,” he added.
Obama will host a nuclear non-proliferation summit on April 12-13 bringing together representatives from as many as 43 countries to help secure the world’s loose nuclear material.
He called last year in Prague for a world without nuclear weapons and has made preventing the spread of atomic weapons a priority.
Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation, leads the U.S. delegation. Anatoly Antonov, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s department of security and disarmament, is her Russian counterpart.
Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin in Moscow; Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Dominic Evans