U.S., Russia Nuclear Talks Stuck on Missile Defense

ABC News' Alexander Marquardt reports: 97% of a new treaty between the U.S. and Russia to reduce nuclear weapons is done, Russian officials keep repeating. “While we are speaking, I think it is already 97.5%,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently joked with reporters.

But negotiators can’t seem seal the deal on a follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that expired on December 5th.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Lavrov to urge the Russians along. "[Clinton] encouraged Russia to continue to move ahead, push hard so we could reach an agreement in the next couple weeks," spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters, refusing to say what the final 3% (or 2.5%) of sticking points are.

So what’s the hold-up?

"Such a treaty is impossible and cannot be concluded without acknowledging interrelation between strategic offensive weapons and missile defense," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax on Friday. Russia has long argued that talks on strategic offensive arms cannot ignore missile defense initiatives, two subjects the US argues are separate.

Russia has been further irked in recent weeks by talk of missile interceptors in neighbors Romania and Bulgaria as part of an American missile defense shield for Europe. The U.S. has repeatedly said it is not a threat to Russia.

"What is happening in the missile defense area and in the U.S.'s relations with their Eastern European allies on this issue is affecting our negotiations on the treaty on strategic offensive arms in a most direct way," Ryabkov added. Last week, the head of Russia’s military, Gen. Sergei Makarov said this is the final issue to be settled.

Both sides appear to agree that they are within weeks of an agreement. On Tuesday a Russian official in Washington said that a call between presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in the coming days could iron out the final details.

“It is being prepared now. It might be a breakthrough,” head of the State Duma international affaris committee Konstantin Kosachyov said.

What language, if any, the treaty will contain on the offensive/defensive linkage is unclear. Kosachyov told a forum he doesn’t think it’ll be mentioned because a treaty containing restrictions on missile defense would make it more difficult to be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow said earlier this month that it “will contain a provision on the interconnection between strategic offensive and defensive armaments.”

ABC News' Kirit Radia contributed to this report.

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