Key US general soothes Russian concerns on missile defense, nuclear weapons

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Kehler, whose command is responsible for U.S. missile defense operations and management of the American nuclear stockpile, said the Pentagon is continually pursuing cooperative measures between the two countries.

His comments come as negotiations intensify between Washington and Moscow on several pressing issues concerning nuclear weapons and missile defense.

Russia and the United States are in the midst of implementing drawdowns in each country's nuclear arsenals, guided by mandates in the New START treaty.

The Pentagon and their Russian counterparts expect to have a drawdown plan in place by February 2018, Kehler said.

The United States has already reduced its nuclear stockpile by 75 percent compared to the arsenal's size at the height of the Cold War, he added.

But the nuclear drawdown plan outlined in the treaty has encountered strong resistance from GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Opponents claim the deal forces the United States to reduce its nuclear weapons while allowing Russia to add to its own nuclear cache.

To that end, House Republicans approved measures to block the Pentagon from cutting the nuclear stockpile further.

The ban was included in the House version of the fiscal 2013 defense budget bill approved by the full chamber on May 18 by a vote of 299-180.

However, the more contentious fight inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill surrounds the White House's plan to stand up a new missile shield in Eastern Europe. 

The Obama administration plans to field a massive network of land and sea-based ballistic missile interceptors to defend against Iranian long-range missile threats by 2020. 

U.S. and NATO leaders agreed to deploy the first phase of that system into the Mediterranean Sea during the alliance's annual conference in Chicago in May.

Russia, which is against the missile shield, argues the weapons designed to counter the Iranian threat could easily be used to take out Russian-operated missile systems stationed in the region.

Moscow has demanded that NATO sign an agreement guaranteeing that none of the weapons included in the missile shield would be used to neutralize the country's own missile defense system.

NATO leaders declined to sign any such agreement and refused to hand over joint control of the shield to Russia. Since then, Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over the issue.

Those negotiations became even more tenuous after congressional Republicans latched onto an apparent gaffe made by President Obama during a meeting with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Obama was overheard on a live microphone telling Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" on European missile defense after the 2012 election.

Republicans, led by Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), argued the comment was a sign the White House would weaken plans for a missile defense system in Europe to satisfy Russia.

Turner in particular sought to make political hay out of the comment, repeatedly accusing the Obama administration of negotiating a "secret deal" with Moscow in missile defense.

The Ohio Republican mentioned the secret deal seven times during the House Defense committee's mark-up of the fiscal year 2013 bill and he took up the same line of criticism when the legislation moved to the House floor.

Democrats have accused Republicans of using the comment to turn the missile defense issue into a political vulnerability in Obama's 2014 reelection bid.

The White House and the Pentagon have repeatedly denied any claims of a secret deal between Russia and the United States.

"We will not agree to any constraints limiting the development or deployment of United States missile defense," White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors wrote in an April letter to Turner.