Expressing far more optimism than the White House conveyed in mid-November, President Obama's National Security Adviser told Fox Wednesday a new nuclear arms control deal with Russia is within reach as both sides are "down to the last few paragraphs and sentences."
"All of the dialogue is encouraging, they're positive," Jones said of talks in Geneva with Russian negotiators on an arms control deal to replace the existing START agreement that expires Saturday. "I think the Russians want to do this. It's a very complex issue. We're down to the last few paragraphs and sentences. And if we can get it done by (December) 5th, fine, maybe it'll be one or two days later."
The START treaty, initiated in talks with Russia in 1991 and finalized in1994, limited the number of nuclear warheads in both countries and regulated the number and sophistication of air, sea and land-based launchers. Among the nettlesome issues for both sides, how to count operational versus obsolete warheads and how to verify compliance with warhead limits and delivery system capabilities.
Jones called the talks "a bit of race against the clock" to meet Saturday's deadline. He said the topic came up in Obama's call to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on Monday and the two leaders "will speak again" to prod talks toward a deal.
"I think the attitude of both countries and all negotiators and both presidents who are driving the process is that we're headed towards having some success here. I just don't know if we'll hit (the expiration date) exactly right," Jones said.
Jones, the top US negotiator with Russia, added there appears to be less need for a so-called bridging agreement, a formal and separately negotiated deal to maintain current nuclear arms arrangements until a new treaty can be hammered out.
"We want to come to an agreement. At some point if there's something that prevents us from doing that then we'll have to talk about a bridging agreement," Jones told Fox in his first interview with the network during the Obama presidency. "We're in negotiations, it'll go on all day tomorrow, the next day, if we can get there, we'll be happy to announce it."
The goal is to reduce nuclear operational warheads on both sides to 1,500-1,675 and delivery vehicles - planes, missiles, land-based launchers - to 500-1,000. The START deal set warhead limits at 6,000 and delivery vehicles at 1,600 each.
Following the last face-to-face meeting between Obama and Medvedev Nov. 15 in Singapore, top White House officials said a new arms treaty might not be worked out until year's end.
"We talked about some sticky issues that still have to be resolved," Mike McFaul, the National Security Council's Russia expert. "And both Presidents committed to trying to get a new treaty in place by the end of the year. We're not at the endgame yet, we're not at the end of the year. We still have some fairly major things to finish."
The U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma must approve a new arms control treaty. That process will play out in 2010, meaning both sides will have to reach some kind of understanding -- formal or otherwise -- to maintain the arms control regime until a new deal is ratified.
"What I do know for sure is that we won't have a ratified treaty in place by December 5th," McFaul said on Nov. 15. "That has to go through our Senate, through their Duma. So that is for sure we do need a bridging agreement no matter what."