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MOSCOW – The world’s two major nuclear weapons states are preparing to stage a public spectacle not seen since the peak of the cold war: full scale negotiations for a new deal to slash their still-bloated arsenals of offensive strategic arms.

President Barack Obama’s administration has set Moscow’s security community abuzz by signaling Washington’s willingness to work up a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which would otherwise expire at the end of this year.

Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to set the ball rolling when they meet on the sidelines of April’s G-20 meeting in London. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also meet Friday in Geneva with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Secretary Clinton offered a preview of the meeting during a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. Regarding Russia, “It’s time for a fresh start,” Clinton said.

The high-level meetings ahead between the US and Russia are likely to be followed by intense activity as the two sides strive to map out a fresh accord by the Dec. 5 deadline.

Often described as the most effective arms control accord in history, START led to the removal of more than two-thirds of all strategic weapons and limited each side to the then-radical ceiling of 6,000 warheads deployed on no more than 1,600 delivery systems.

Moscow welcomes Obama’s goal

But experts warn that the global security environment has shifted dangerously in two decades, and the old bipolar superpower standoff has been deeply complicated by the emergence of new nuclear wild cards, such as India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

They also worry that the old arms control framework may have been fatally damaged by the Bush administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned defensive strategic weapons, followed by a decision to station anti-missile interceptors in Poland. Despite such concerns, official Moscow appears enthusiastic.

“Nuclear arms control is the one, single area where Russians feel like complete equals when they face their American counterparts across a table,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal. “When we start serious talks [on START], it will say to us that Russia is finally back as a serious player.”

Russian experts say they are excited by the signs coming out of Washington. According to a statement published on the White House website, Mr. Obama wants to move toward “a world without nuclear weapons” and is ready to partner with Moscow to seek “dramatic reductions in US and Russian stockpiles,” of nuclear arms. A recent story in The Times of London quoted a White House official saying the US might seek to slash strategic arsenals down to 1,000 weapons on each side – an 80 percent reduction.

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