U.S.-Russia Nuclear Agreement Is First Step in Broad Effort

Posted in Russia , United States | 07-Jul-09 | Author: Clifford J. Levy and Peter Bak| Source: New York Times

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev exchanges documents with US President Barack Obama at the Kremlin in Moscow. The Russian and US leaders announced agreements on cutting their nuclear arsenals as they sought a new era in battered relations.

MOSCOW - President Obama signed an agreement on Monday to cut American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals by at least one-quarter, a first step in a broader effort intended to reduce the threat of such weapons drastically and to prevent their further spread to unstable regions.

Mr. Obama, on his first visit to Russia since taking office, and President Dmitri A. Medvedev agreed on the basic terms of a treaty to reduce the number of warheads and missiles to the lowest levels since the early years of the cold war.

The new treaty, to be finished by December, would be subject to ratification by the Senate and could then lead to talks next year on more substantial reductions.

The progress reflected an effort to re-establish ties a year after Russia's war with Georgia left the relationship more strained than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. The two sides agreed to resume military contacts suspended after the Georgia war and sealed a deal allowing the United States to send thousands of flights of troops and weapons to Afghanistan through Russian airspace each year.

They remained at loggerheads over American plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, which Washington describes as a hedge against an Iranian nuclear breakthrough and which Russia vehemently opposes as a threat in its backyard.

But after hours of meetings at the Kremlin, the presidents agreed to conduct a joint assessment of any Iranian threat and presented a united front against the spread of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama hailed the arms agreement as an example for the world as he pursued a broader agenda aimed at countering - and eventually eliminating - the spread of nuclear weapons, a goal he hopes to make a defining legacy of his presidency.

While the United States and Russia together have 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, Mr. Obama also views Russia as an influential player in deterring nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

"This is an urgent issue, and one in which the United States and Russia have to take leadership," Mr. Obama said. "It is very difficult for us to exert that leadership unless we are showing ourselves willing to deal with our own nuclear stockpiles in a more rational way."

Mr. Medvedev expressed willingness to help fight the proliferation of nuclear weapons in places like Iran and North Korea. "It's our common, joint responsibility, and we should do our utmost to prevent any negative trends there, and we are ready to do that," Mr. Medvedev said.

The arms agreement drew starkly contrasting reactions in the United States. Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, called the agreement "an overdue if very modest step toward ridding each side of obsolete and expensive cold war legacy weapons."

But John R. Bolton, who was ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, said Mr. Obama was going too far. "The number they are proposing for delivery vehicles is shockingly low," he said.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev used the start of Mr. Obama's two-day visit to forge a stronger personal connection. As they waited for a news conference in the Kremlin, Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev whispered and smiled. Speaking with reporters, they professed warm respect for each other. Afterward, they retreated to Mr. Medvedev's country estate for dinner with their wives.

Mr. Obama will have breakfast on Tuesday with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, generally considered the paramount political force in Russia. Mr. Obama, tired after an all-night flight from Washington and a full day of activities, at one point started to refer to Mr. Putin as "President," then caught himself and said, "Prime Minister Putin."

American officials said afterward that Mr. Obama raised questions of rule of law during their private meetings and would demonstrate support for greater freedom here by meeting with opposition leaders and attending a civil society conference on Tuesday.

The presidents also had what Mr. Obama later called a "frank discussion" about Georgia, and he emphasized American support for Georgian territorial integrity. "Even as we work through our disagreements on Georgia's borders, we do agree that no one has an interest in renewed military conflict," Mr. Obama said.

Most of the one-on-one talks between the presidents were consumed by Iran and missile defense, American officials said. Mr. Obama later told reporters that it was "entirely legitimate for our discussions to talk not only about offensive weapon systems, but also defensive weapon systems," a statement that pleased the Russians, who have sought to link missile defense to arms cuts.

But Obama aides later said he still refused to link the new arms control treaty to any compromise on the missile defense project, begun by President Bush, which is under review by the new administration.

Sergei A. Karaganov, a Russian political scientist, said more collaboration on nuclear nonproliferation could increase pressure on Iran, which he said benefited from the schism caused by the war in Georgia. "If you take the Georgia war, who was the winner?" he asked. "Russia, Georgia, the United States? No, it was Iran."

The nuclear agreement set the outline for a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or Start, which expires in December. Once a new treaty is enacted, Mr. Obama wants to open talks to cut arms more deeply.

Mr. Obama has vowed to ratify the long-stalled Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, secure vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years and hold a nonproliferation summit meeting in Washington next year. Critics say Mr. Obama's ambition of eliminating nuclear weapons is naïve and dangerous, given that countries like Iran and North Korea presumably would not go along.

Under Monday's agreement, the Start successor treaty would reduce the ceiling on strategic warheads to somewhere between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads within seven years, down from the current ceiling of 2,200 warheads by 2012. The limit on delivery vehicles - land-based intercontinental missiles, submarines-based missiles and bombers - would be somewhere from 500 to 1,100, down from the 1,600 currently allowed.

The Russians are pushing for deeper cuts in delivery vehicles because their missiles generally fit more warheads than American missiles. American officials said this treaty would not address warheads stored in reserve, an issue something the Russians have wanted to include in the past.

Russian officials at first resisted putting any target numbers in Monday's agreement, but Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Medvedev last week for specific commitments, aides said. Negotiators now have until December to narrow the range further and define counting rules and verification measures.

The United States reported in January that it had 1,198 delivery vehicles, and the Arms Control Association estimates that it deploys 2,200 warheads. Russia reported 816 delivery vehicles, and the association estimates that it deploys 2,000 to 3,000 warheads.