American and Russian negotiators have come to terms on how to handle the thorniest point of contention inside the negotiations over a new nuclear arms-reduction treaty: missile defense.
Russia had been stalling the last stage of the negotiations over the issue, holding fast to its position that missile defense must be included in some way in the new treaty. The U.S. side has insisted the treaty be confined only to offensive systems. Meanwhile, the old agreement, known as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), expired last December and U.S. President Barack Obama has been pushing to complete the new deal before some 44 world leaders come to Washington for a major nuclear conference beginning April 12.
Washington was abuzz Wednesday after the New York Times reported there had been a "breakthrough" in the talks, but the Times never disclosed what the breakthrough was. The Cable got the details in an exclusive interview with Senate Foreign Relations ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, who met with Obama along with committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, Wednesday morning.
"Missile defense will not be part of the treaty, but in the preamble both parties will state their positions and there will be a mention of offense and defense and the importance of those," Lugar said. He added that because the missile-defense statements were outside the main text, "they are in essence editorial opinions."
That closely tracks the original understanding that Obama and Medvedev agreed upon during their July meeting in Moscow, as enshrined in the Joint Understanding they issued at the time.
There are still some final details to be worked out, Lugar said, but the president believes there will be a final deal to sign "within the next few days."
"The president thinks we are very close to an agreement. He hopes to have a signing with President Medvedev April 8 in Prague," Lugar said.
Several GOP senators have warned that any reference to missile defense, even if not in the actual text of the agreement, would pose problems for the treaty's ratification.
"That's still not going to be acceptable to a lot of senators," said one senior GOP senate aide close to the issue, reacting to Lugar's comments. "How do senators know that's not going to be used against a future administration by the Russians?"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, wrote to Obama March 15 to drive home just that point.
"As you know, it is highly unlikely that the Senate would ratify a treaty that includes such a linkage, including a treaty that includes unilateral declarations that the Russian Federation could use as leverage against you or your successors as missile defense decisions are made," they wrote.
Regardless, the breakthrough signals that a deal is pending and the White House feels confident the deal can be defended on Capitol Hill.
So how did it all happen behind the scenes? We've got that for you too.
Following a contentious phone call with Medvedev earlier this month, Obama realized that the two sides were still far apart. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher was dispatched to Geneva to aid Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller and the breakthrough followed soon after.
The breakthrough was then ratified with another, so far unreported call between Obama and Medvedev, according to two administration sources.
One administration source credited Tauscher with the success, but Lugar also credited National Security Advisor Jim Jones's efforts and Obama's personal intervention in the issue as being "very helpful."
Lugar said that there would be extensive briefings of senators to explain the details and build confidence in the treaty before a push for ratification. He said he intends to support the agreement and hearings could begin in May.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.