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Russian parliament tentatively approves arms pact

Russia's lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval Friday to a U.S.-Russian arms treaty, but decided to delay the final vote until next month.

The Kremlin-controlled State Duma voted 350-58 to approve the New START treaty in the first of three readings. The legislators said they would proceed further after returning from the New Year's vacation that lasts until Jan. 11.

The Russian parliament normally ratifies international treaties in a single vote, but this time legislators said they needed an extra time to study legislation accompanying the treaty that was passed by the U.S. Senate when it ratified the pact on Wednesday.

Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee, said the full ratification could happen next month "at the earliest," as the Russian legislators would need to formulate their response to the Senate legislation in a ratification bill.

At the same time, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made it clear the bill wouldn't change the text of the treaty, just as the Senate's legislation didn't affect it. A quick initial approval of the ratification bill signaled a strong Kremlin support for the document.

The New START 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 President Barack Obama's efforts to "reset" ties with Russia. In a phone conversation on Thursday, President Dmitry Medvedev congratulated Obama's 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 treaty 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 U.S. 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 and other lawmakers 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."

The treaty also needs to be ratified by the upper house, the Federation Council, which like the Duma is controlled by the Kremlin.

Addressing legislators in both houses of parliament, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that the legislation accompanying the treaty doesn't change it and made it extremely clear that the Kremlin wants the pact ratified.

"This treaty takes our relations with the United States to a qualitatively new level of equality, parity and balance of interests," Lavrov said, warning the legislators that the failure to pass it would badly tarnish Russia's reputation.

At the same time, Lavrov signaled to lawmakers that they could add statements countering the Senate's legislation accompanying the treaty.

"The ratification is a priority task for the state," Lavrov said. "But we must do it in such a way that no one has any doubts about our determination to firmly demand the fulfillment of the treaty's conditions."