Presidents Medvedev and Obama will meet for the first time on April 1st, on the margins of the G-20 conference in London. One issue that will definitely be on the agenda is a new "legally binding" arms control agreement that is supposed to bring a new round of nuclear weapons reductions. It is too early, of course, for anything that would resemble an actual agreement, but we could probably expect a join statement with some an outline of the new arrangement.

As far as I can tell from various conversations with people in Moscow and elsewhere, we shouldn't expect a breakthrough of any kind. To begin with, the number that we will probably see in the new agreement is 1500 warheads - hardly a radical reduction from the "1700-2200 warheads" level of the Moscow treaty.

Then, to get to the level of 1500 warheads, the United States and Russia will have to come up with some creative accounting. One way to do that would be to accept the "operationally deployed nuclear warheads" count, which is referred to in the Moscow treaty and which the United States used unilaterally since then, but which Russia has never officially accepted. So far, that is - I was told that Russia will be ready to use the U.S. definition in the new treaty.

What about the "upload potential" then? One of the reasons Russia objected to accepting the "operationally deployed nuclear warheads" count was that it allows the United States to implement reductions by simply removing some warheads from missiles and bombers. As far as I understand, no final decision has been made yet in Russia on how to deal with that issue, but one possibility would be to have a separate ceiling on delivery systems - this would probably not limit the "upload potential" in any substantial way, but would allow Russian negotiators to claim that they got the limit on launchers that they wanted. Another possibility that was mentioned is an agreement that would limit the "upload potential" by a certain percentage of "operationally deployed nuclear warheads".

Whatever choice is made, it is hard to see how a limit on "upload potential" would be meaningful without significant changes in the U.S. strategic posture - right now the United States has about 6000 START-accountable warheads and about 2200 "operationally deployed nuclear" warheads. Even with some serious flexibility in counting rules it would be difficult for the United States to bring its forces to the 1500-warheads level (isn't this the good time for the United States to get rid of its ICBMs?).

As far as Russia is concerned, 1500 warheads would be a relatively easy number to achieve (although getting lower would take some tough decisions). Russia might even have an upload potential of its own - there will be a theoretical possibility to MIRV single-warhead Topol-M missiles and to increase the number of warheads on R-29RM Sineva missile to ten. Not that this would make any sense, but at least Russia could claim some parity with the United States.

I was told in no uncertain terms that Russia has made a firm decision not to extend the START treaty. This is very unfortunate - keeping START in force would be the best way of keeping that "upload potential" under control. As far as  I can tell, many in Russia believe that they could get a better deal in a new treaty, but I'm sure this is not the case - once the provisions of START treaty are abandoned it would be very difficult to get them back. The issue of "offensive strategic arms" deployed outside of national territories that received a special place in a recent address from the president is an example of how this would work - I was told that the reason it was mentioned was precisely to ensure that this ban, which is part of START, will remain in place after the treaty expires. But I'm not sure that Russia will be able to get that formal commitment again.

Overall, although the "party line" is that the new treaty is expected to be ready by the end of the year, there is quite a bit of skepticism about that. I think this skepticism is justified - I don't see how the two countries could negotiate a meaningful new agreement in the time that's left. Of course, the United States and Russia could always sign a meaningless agreement, which I'm afraid they will most likely end up doing.

I still believe that the idea of having a new agreement is misguided - keeping START treaty in force would be a much better strategy.