A retired Navy vice admiral who has dealt with Soviet nuclear issues for decades said Friday that the Russians are taunting the Obama administration by dragging their feet on the arms reduction treaty the president just pushed through Congress.
Russian lawmakers gave preliminary approval on Christmas Eve to the so-called New START treaty with a vote in the lower house of parliament. But Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee, said it would take until next month "at the earliest" for the treaty to receive its three required readings and get a final vote. Lawmakers' vacation lasts until Jan. 11.
The assessment seems to put the brakes on the document President Obama called a top priority as he whipped up the Republican votes needed to pass it before the end of the lame-duck session. Vice Adm. Jerry Miller said the Russians appear to be having some fun at U.S. expense.
"They are superb, absolutely superb in this business," Miller told FoxNews.com. "This would just be a delaying tactic just to kind of heckle us a little bit, kind of like the North Koreans. ... They tweak us."
Miller said there's little doubt the treaty will ultimately be approved, though he said it stands as more of a political victory for Obama than a substantive policy step on nuclear weapons reduction. He said Russia's stalling is just "the way they play the game."
The treaty, which was ratified Wednesday by the U.S. Senate, would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would re-establish a system for monitoring and verification, which ended last year with the expiration of a previous arms control deal.
The pact is a centerpiece of Obama's efforts to "reset" ties with Russia. In a phone conversation on Thursday, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev congratulated Obama on the Senate's approval of the treaty, which the two leaders hailed as a historic event for both countries and for U.S.-Russia relations, according to a statement from the White House.
Speaking in a live interview with top Russian TV stations on Friday, Medvedev praised the pact as a "cornerstone of stability both on the European continent and the entire world for the next decades," adding he was happy to see the Russian parliament moving ahead to ratify it. He credited Obama for securing the pact's ratification.
"He did a great job, succeeding in his push for the ratification of this very important document, the New START in quite difficult conditions," Medvedev said. "I told him: Barack, you have a rest now."
Obama called the treaty a national security imperative and pressed strongly for its approval before the new Congress, with a Republican majority, assumes power in January. In recent days, he had telephoned a handful of wavering Republicans, eventually locking in their votes.
The Obama administration has argued that the United States must show credibility in its improved relations with its former Cold War foe. It is also counting on Russia to help pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
When Obama and Medvedev signed the arms pact in Prague in April, they agreed to conduct ratification simultaneously. But Kosachev and other top Russian lawmakers said they need to study Senate legislation accompanying the treaty before making a decision.
Republicans had tried to kill the treaty by forcing changes in its language that would have sent it back for negotiations with Moscow. Democrats sought to appease some Republican senators by letting them raise these issues in legislation accompanying the treaty that would not directly affect the pact.
On Wednesday, two such amendments, one on missile defense and one on funding for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, passed with support from both parties.
Kosachev said that the Duma will likely counter the Senate legislation with legislation of its own.
"We don't have the right to leave their interpretations unanswered," Kosachev told reporters on Friday. "Otherwise it may give additional advantages to our American partners - or, possibly, opponents. We need to balance those advantages."
He said that the house would meet after the New Year's vacation to consider the ratification bill in the second reading.
The treaty also needs to be ratified by the upper house, the Federation Council, which like the Duma is controlled by the Kremlin.
Speaking to upper house members on Friday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the legislation accompanying the treaty doesn't change it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.