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Russia, U.S. to Update Nuclear Crisis Communications

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry take part in an Oct. 7 signing ceremony in Bali, Indonesia, for a new agreement on their nations' Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. The deal enables Moscow and Washington to exchange nuclear-arms information and other data using up-to-date communications technology, an expert said (U.S. State Department photo). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry take part in an Oct. 7 signing ceremony in Bali, Indonesia, for a new agreement on their nations' Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. The deal enables Moscow and Washington to exchange nuclear-arms information and other data using up-to-date communications technology, an expert said (U.S. State Department photo).

WASHINGTON -- A new U.S.-Russian deal made public on Thursday paves the way for the former Cold War rivals to bring their nuclear-arms communications into the digital age.

The accord signed this month updates a 1987 pact, which established an arms-control-communication office in each country, so that it now allows updates to certain communications equipment at the offices. The two "Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers" -- located at the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow and the U.S. State Department in Washington -- have conducted routine data swaps required under more than a dozen treaties, but they provide a means of communication that could be important for use during any high-stakes nuclear crisis.

"The Cold War is now long over, but thousands of nuclear weapons remain, and we both recognize a responsibility to do everything possible to keep each other appraised of important developments in order to avoid misunderstandings and potentially catastrophic consequences," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at an Oct. 7 news conference, after signing the new arrangement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The State Department on Thursday released the text of the revised agreement, which still bears the initial title "Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Establishment of Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers."

Washington last year briefed Moscow on a number of technology improvements at the U.S. nuclear office. However, certain equipment covered in the 1987 agreement is less up-to-date.

"Basically the old agreement was an encrypted line able to send faxes," said Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who served as a nuclear security adviser to the Clinton administration.

"The new agreement is an encrypted line for full digital communications, text, images, etc.," Bunn told Global Security Newswire over e-mail. "It's basically bringing it into the modern age."

This month's agreement strikes from the previous one references to floppy disks and low-bandwidth communications lines. Now it grants the sides more flexibility in determining how fast their computers can trade secured "text and graphics files," according to its text.

The deal also allows the countries to rely in part on "commercial communications channels" for their data transmissions.

However, the pact does not fully entrust nuclear-arms recordkeeping to digital technology. Specifically, it states that "a printer shall be used" by each country to produce hard copies of exchanged materials.

To date, the U.S. and Russian nuclear centers have completed more than 5,000 "day-to-day" information swaps under the New START treaty, Rose Gottemoeller, acting under secretary of State for arms control and international security, noted in a speech earlier this month.

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