updated 4/27/2009 4:00:29 PM ET 2009-04-27T20:00:29

The first full-format talks by Russia and the United States on devising a replacement for the START arms-reduction treaty will take place May 18-20 in Moscow.

Monday's announcement by Russia's Foreign Ministry follows last week's U.S.-Russia talks in Rome that focused on procedural issues for getting the full-fledged discussions under way.

The ministry said in a statement that the Rome talks had "a businesslike, constructive atmosphere."

The goal is to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, before it expires in December. The deal capped the number of warheads and reduced ways of delivering them. Both sides have said they are ready for further cuts.

First step in no-nuclear agenda
The new treaty is considered the first step in the no-nuclear agenda embraced by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a joint April 1 declaration.

The United States has 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads deployed; Russia has 2,800.

The two sides agreed to further warhead cuts in 2002, and Russian and American arms control experts believe that the START replacement treaty would seek to cut arsenals to 1,500 on each side.

Signed in 1991 by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush, the 700-page START resulted in the largest nuclear reductions in history. Essential to that was a mechanism that allowed the two sides to inspect and verify each other's arsenals.

According to the U.S. State Department, as of July — the most recent official data available — Russia had about 4,100 warheads available for use on missiles based on land, on submarines and on long-range bombers. The United States had around 5,950. That includes warheads in storage — a major point of disagreement.

The talks are the first major arms control negotiations since 1997, when Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton made a new push to reach a START successor treaty that U.S. and Russian lawmakers would ratify.

That effort, however, was tied up for years by lawmakers in both countries and START II ultimately fell apart.

Desire to reach a new deal
Instead the two powers produced the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, a page-long document committing them to slash their warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 in number. But it's considered far weaker than START.

With just seven months remaining before START expires, both Medvedev and Obama have signaled a desire to reach a new deal.

But a thicket of technical disputes, differing interpretations and lingering grievances make it unlikely that a negotiators will reach a comprehensive successor to START before the deadline, analysts say. More likely is that START will just be renewed or the two sides will reach an informal agreement that keeps some sort of arms control framework in place.

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