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Russia-U.S. nuclear deal placed on hold

A key civil nuclear agreement between Russia and the U.S. looks likely to be shelved until next year at the earliest amid mounting tensions over the fate of Georgia's breakaway republics.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A key civil nuclear agreement between Russia and the U.S. looks likely to be shelved until next year at the earliest amid mounting tensions over the fate of Georgia's breakaway republics.

The nuclear pact — signed last May — set the framework to give the U.S. access to Russian state-of-the-art nuclear technologies, while helping Russia establish an international nuclear fuel storage facility for spent fuel. Russia cannot achieve that goal without the deal, since the U.S. controls the vast majority of the world's nuclear fuel.

The Bush administration submitted the bill to Congress the same month, with hopes it would be passed into law by September.

But after the war between Russia and Georgia earlier this month — where Russia's actions have drawn sharp criticism from the West — both U.S. and Russian officials say that now looks unlikely.

A Russian government official familiar with the nuclear industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted on the issue, said Moscow had received a friendly hint that the bill would be recalled and that the Russians expect it to be resubmitted after a new president is installed in the White House next year.

But other officials criticized for Washington's methods.

"If we are working on the basis of our mutual interests, then it's logical to implement this agreement," said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "This is an old way of doing things, that has nothing to do with modern realities."

Rice says focus is on India
On her way to Tel Aviv earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the focus was now on a civil nuclear deal with India.

Days earlier, presidential candidate Barack Obama's running mate Sen. Joe Biden said after a fact-finding mission to Georgia that Russia's actions in Georgia have "erased" hopes of advancing collaboration on nuclear energy production.

Russian tanks rolled south into Georgia's separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in early August. After five days of intensive fighting, Russian agreed to a cease-fire, but observers say Russia has failed to abide by its terms — to U.S. and European condemnation. Russian troops still remain in parts of Georgia and hold the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti.

Moscow further fanned the flames earlier this week when President Dmitry Medvedev formally recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and later told television channels that Russia was prepared for a new Cold War.

"Primarily, I think (the U.S.) was looking for things to take away and penalize Russia for in Georgia," said Henry Sokolski, executive director at the U.S.-based Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center. "This is a vote of no confidence in improving U.S.-Russian relations."

Russia will want to keep deal moving
Analysts said that Russia would want to keep the deal moving. "Russia doesn't want (to lose) this," said Sergei Mikheyev, a political analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.

The temporary derailing of the bill will not signal an end to nuclear cooperation, said the Russian government official. Rather, it will mean that the two countries will have to formulate agreements on a case-by-case basis.

The deal was seen in Washington as a breakthrough at a time of rising tensions over U.S. plans to place a missile defense system in Poland, and its support of Georgia and Ukraine in joining NATO.

Important for both sides, the agreement would give both the U.S. and Russia the opportunity to improve their nuclear technologies, while enabling Russia to take in and potentially reprocess nuclear fuel of U.S. origin.

Prior to events in Georgia, some U.S. senators voiced strong opposition to the bill, charging that Russia was not committed to discouraging nuclear proliferation in Iran.

But the Bush administration — which has seen Russia as a partner in its efforts to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapon ambitions — has backed the bill as a key part of its efforts to secure nuclear materials.