by Silvia Marchetti
ROME, April 24 (Xinhua) -- U.S. and Russian negotiators met in Rome for the first time on Friday to revive bilateral relations and further discussions on the reduction of nuclear weapons.
Both sides said they were satisfied with the outcomes of the initial talks and were optimistic about future steps in the process, which was aimed at creating a new treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or START I before it expires in December this year.
The two sides are expecting a bilateral agreement at the end of 2009.
The meeting took place at the U.S. embassy in Rome. Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, and Anatoly Antonov, chief of security and disarmament at the Russian Foreign Ministry, attended the meeting.
The Rome meeting was of crucial importance as it launched a new strategic cooperation in nuclear non-proliferation between the new U.S. administration and Russia. The talks represented the first breakthrough in bilateral relations and followed U.S. President Barack Obama's engagement in Prague on April 5 for a global nuclear disarmament phase.
The prospective new treaty will be the first step in the no-nuclear agenda embraced by Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in a joint declaration at the London G20 summit.
Italy hosted the bilateral meeting in the capacity of the rotating G8 president. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini hailed the event as "very important in reviving U.S.-Russian relations" and said he was pleased it took place in Rome.
"Nuclear non-proliferation will be on top of the G8 agenda," he told reporters. Both sides said the meeting focused on procedural issues and added they were ready for further cuts in nuclear armaments.
President Obama will visit Russia for the first time in July and by then the two negotiators should come up with a definite agreement to replace the START I treaty. More meetings are expected to take place in Washington and Moscow in the next two months to further consultations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton are planning to meet in Washington in May to check on the progress made by the experts.
"We expect on the basis of this very productive meeting today that we will have a good report for them in July," Gottemoeller told reporters at a joint press conference following the talks.
"I hope we are able to prepare a new draft by the end of the year, or at least do our utmost," Antonov added.
To reach a new agreement on nuclear reduction is considered by both sides a milestone in reviving the strained U.S.-Russian relations.
Compared with policies of former U.S. president George W. Bush, who rejected Russia's requests of toughening non-proliferation measures and weapons reduction, Obama's approach opened a new phase of nuclear cooperation.
The START I treaty was launched in 1991 and came into force in 1994. It limited the number of warheads and reduced ways of delivering them.
The START I treaty banned the production, testing and deployment of air-launched ballistic missiles, underwater launch systems for ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as orbital missiles. It has now become obsolete and must be replaced or toughened by a new agreement.
According to Russian and U.S. arms control experts, the new upgraded treaty will seek to reduce arsenals to 1,500 on each side.
However, the United States still needs to revise its nuclear strategy, specifically with regard to Bush's plan of an anti-terrorist nuclear attack.
One of the critical points of the negotiations, according to Antonov, is the anti-Iran missile shield to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic, near Russian borders.
Russia and the United States account for 96 percent of the total of 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world.
According to Italian daily La Repubblica, the treaty is to pave the way for a new era of the global non-proliferation.
For Silvio Fagiolo, professor of international relations at LUISS University in Rome and former Italian ambassador to Germany, "Obama is keeping his promise of nuclear non-proliferation and reviving a central Cold War treaty that in several points the United States has not respected."