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Secretary Clinton in Moscow

Secretary of State Clinton visits Moscow October 12-14 to meet with her counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov. Three sets of issues top their agenda: arms control, the broader Middle East and the work of the U.S.-Russia presidential commission.

The most pressing question is negotiation of a new strategic arms reduction treaty. Their negotiators will join Clinton and Lavrov to take stock of progress made since Presidents Obama and Medvedev issued their July declaration outlining the basic parameters for a new agreement. The negotiators face a tight deadline: the 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START) expires on December 5.

While the sides are close to agreeing on the strategic nuclear warhead limit (Washington has proposed 1,500 while Moscow has offered 1,675), they face three key questions:

• Missile defense: the U.S. decision in September to reconfigure its missile defense plans for Europe has taken a lot of heat out of the issue, but the Russians still seek missile defense limits. Washington acknowledges the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and missile defense and is prepared to discuss the latter with Moscow, including missile defense cooperation. But the U.S. position remains that, as the presidents agreed in April, the new treaty should limit only strategic offensive arms.

• Warhead “upload”: the Russians propose to reach the warhead limit by eliminating intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), while the United States prefers to reach the limit by “downloading” (removing) warheads from missiles without radically cutting the number of ICBMs and SLBMs. To make this work, the sides must reach some understanding that gives the Russians confidence the United States cannot quickly “upload” (replace) the warheads it removes. Working out appropriate counting rules also poses a challenge.

• Conventional systems: the sides will have to come to agreement on how to handle bombers or submarines that no longer carry strategic nuclear warheads. They also have to decide how to treat ICBMs and SLBMs that may in the future carry conventional instead of nuclear warheads.

These are tough but soluble issues. Still, getting a treaty done by December 5 poses a tall order. Clinton and Lavrov hopefully can push things along.

The secretary and foreign minister will also address the broader Middle East, particularly the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program. By most accounts, Russia has been helpful of late. Medvedev on September 24 made a forward-leaning statement on Russian readiness to consider sanctions should Iran not cooperate, and Moscow reportedly has urged Tehran to engage more seriously with the “P5 plus 1” (United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom and Germany).

The October 1 meeting with Iran has generated some optimism that a way forward can be found. But the question remains: are the Iranians prepared to address international concerns about their nuclear program seriously or are they simply trying to buy time? Clinton and Lavrov will discuss how to increase the prospects of the former. The Russians, like the United States, do not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran. However, given the variety of Russian interests in Iran as well as their lesser sense of urgency about the problem, Moscow will be reluctant to go as far as Washington would like on sanctions if the Iranians do not pursue negotiations in a serious manner.

The two ministers will also discuss the presidential commission established in July. The commission gives a structure to U.S.-Russian relations that has been missing since the late 1990s. Several of its 13 working groups—which cover a broad range of U.S.-Russian questions—have already met. The presidents appointed Clinton and Lavrov as executive secretaries, which means that they are in position to steer its work and its contribution to putting some more “positives” on the U.S.-Russia agenda.