Putin and Bush quietly reach agreement on civilian nuke cooperation and missile reduction

frontpageingressimage_quietagreementFNT.jpg Photo: whitehouse.gov

Officials close to the 24-hour meeting between the leaders held at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, also said the United States and Russia would cooperate more actively and openly in the civilian nuclear sector, particularly regarding fast reactor technology.

The agreements were muted by continuing Cold War ilk tensions between the two leaders over an anti-nuclear missile defence shield Washington plans to build in Poland and the Czech Republic. Putin opposition to this plan reached a crescendo early last month when he threatened to target Europe with Russian nukes if Bush followed through with the plan.

Since then, Putin has proposed to cooperate on the missile shield – which the White House says is meant to thwart a future threat from Iran – by offering that it be stationed in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. But reporters who were present at the meeting between the two leaders said a chilly air nonetheless pervaded the exchanges, emphasised by forced public smiles on the otherwise grim faces of Putin and Bush.

Indeed, the leaders were more eager to present a sense of bonhomie by discussing Putin’s big catch on a Sunday morning fishing trip with Bush and his father, former President George Bush Senior. According to the New York Times, Putin caught one fish, where the two US leaders returned with empty nets.

Missile cut treaty extended – with push from Richard Lugar
A pivotal 1991 treaty called for reduction of long-range US and Russian nuclear missiles by about one-third. It is due to expire in December 2009.

Senior Republican senator and chairman of the Senate on Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana – who specializes in arms control and co-authored the Nunn-Lugar or Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Act – urged Bush before his talks Monday with Putin at the so called “lobster summit” to make sure the treaty was extended with binding language, a senior staff member for the foreign relations committee told Bellona Web.

In a joint statement issued Tuesday by the US Department of State, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the two sides intended to carry out strategic offensive reductions "to the lowest possible level consistent with their national security requirements and alliance commitments."

The countries will work toward developing an arrangement "to provide continuity and predictability" about their arsenals, the brief statement said.

Bush and Putin instructed the two sides to produce "early results," the statement said.

Expanded civilian cooperation

In the area of civilian nuclear cooperation, a declaration released with the joint statement by Rice and Lavrov said the United States and Russia would expand their cooperation in the field of using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The 123 agreement, so called because it falls under section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, is critical to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, which the United States and Russia have discussed for more than a year as a way to expand peaceful nuclear energy development and mitigate proliferation risks.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that: "This is a serious initiative. It is moving ahead. We need a 123 agreement to keep moving," Fried told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"But happily this is an area where we are making steady progress and hope to continue to do so,” a committee staffer who was present at Fried’s presentation at the end of last month, prior to the Bush-Putin meeting in Maine, told Bellona Web.

Such an agreement had previously run aground on the shoals of Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran –particularly over Russia’s construction of an $800m, 1,000 megawatt reactor in Iran’s port of Bushehr, which is slated to come online later this year – so the push toward more cooperation with Russia marks a distinct change in policy that had been in place since the Clinton Administration.

But Bush administration officials, arguing Russia has increasingly cooperated on Iran and other nonproliferation issues, told Bellona Web that “Moscow could be trusted.”

Iran has defied repeated demands by the United Nations Security Council to halt uranium enrichment, which can be used in both weapons and energy production, at a facility called Natanz.

While Moscow remains formally committed to the Bushehr project, which is supposed to be for electricity generation, it has delayed providing fuel for the facility and has joined the United States and other major powers in voting for two sets of UN sanctions against Iran.

At the same time, Russia – along with China – has often defended Iran and put up a vigorous struggle each time to weaken proposed sanctions.

With the US-Russia 123 agreement is initialed and signed, Bush will send it to Congress, which has 90 days to act. If Congress does nothing, the agreement goes into effect. If lawmakers want to block it, they must pass a resolution of disapproval.

House of Representatives could derail 123
Even if Congress lets the 123 agreement take effect, the accord could be stymied by legislation approved earlier this week by the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee.

The bill, which still must be voted on by the full House and Senate, is intended to force Bush to sanction oil and gas companies doing business with Iran, the Associated Press reported.

But it also would bar bilateral cooperation agreements "with Russia or with any other countries assisting Iran’s nuclear or missile or advanced conventional weapons programmes.

The American Council on Global Nuclear Competitiveness, which represents nuclear and energy experts, has backed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, AP reported.

The council says the accord would help the United States gain access to Russia’s fast- spectrum reactor technology while providing Russia with the opportunity to learn from America’s extensive fast reactor experience.

But the group warned that any deal should not undermine the re-emerging US uranium industry with increased Russian imports.

Charles Digges