U.S., Russia reach agreement on nuclear arms reduction treaty
President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sealed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty during a phone call Friday morning, committing the two nations to a significant new reduction of the strategic missiles each side has deployed, U.S. officials said.
Flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama announced what he called "the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades."
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama described the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as a historic step toward "a world without nuclear weapons, a goal that's been embraced by presidents like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan."
Obama said nuclear weapons "represent both the darkest days of the Cold War, and the most troubling threats of our time." He hailed the treaty as the start of a new effort to rid the world of that threat.
"With this agreement, the United States and Russia -- the two largest nuclear powers in the world -- also send a clear signal that we intend to lead," he said.
After speaking with Medvedev, Obama said he will travel to Prague on April 8 to sign the treaty with the Russian leader, noting that the historic event will come just a week before he hosts a summit in Washington on how to control the spread of nuclear material around the world.
He also praised what he said was an improving relationship with Russia.
"We have turned words into action. We have made progress that is clear and concrete," Obama said. "And we have demonstrated the importance of American leadership -- and American partnership -- on behalf of our own security, and the world's."
The treaty, which must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and Russia's legislature, would replace a 19-year-old pact that called for both countries to draw down their dangerous arsenals of thousands of long-range nuclear weapons.
The new deal took shape after months of negotiations that stretched on far longer than officials had expected. The 1991 START treaty expired in early December, forcing the presidents of both countries to pledge that they would abide by its parameters until a new treaty could be forged.
The new agreement calls for both sides to reduce the stockpiles of their most dangerous weapons -- those already deployed and ready to launch at long-range targets -- by about 30 percent, allowing each side to retain about 1,550 such warheads.
It also limits deployed and non-deployed missile launchers and heavy bombers to 800 and says that each side may have only 700 of such equipment already deployed -- a cut in half from the limits in the previous treaty.
Administration officials described the achievement as a hard-fought victory in Obama's efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. In a speech in Prague last year, Obama pledged that the United States would lead by negotiating the new treaty with Russia.
But the deal faces skepticism in the Senate, where it will need Republican support to get the 67 votes required for ratification. Several key GOP senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have recently expressed concerns about the treaty's impact on the U.S. missile defense program.
In a statement, McConnell said GOP senators would be looking to see if the new agreement is verifiable, whether it reduces the nation's ability to defend itself and whether the United States will be able to continue to rely on launching nuclear weapons from the air, sea and land.
Clinton and other top officials expressed confidence that the Senate will ratify the treaty despite the highly charged, partisan environment in the wake of the health-care debate.
"I don't believe that this ratification effort will be affected by anything other than individual senators' assessment of whether this is in the national security interests of the United States," Clinton told reporters after Obama's remarks.
Clinton said that she and Gates have begun briefing lawmakers and will testify before Congress in the coming days. She said the issue is "way beyond politics" for the country.
She acknowledged that Medvedev will have to get the Russian legislature, called the Duma, to ratify the treaty as well and joked that Obama had offered to send his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to Russia to help secure passage.
"We all immediately endorsed that offer," Clinton said of the famously rough-hewn Emanuel, prompting laughter in the room, which was filled with State Department, White House and national security officials.
Gates said he also is confident that the treaty would get the two-thirds vote in the Senate needed for ratification. He said senators have voiced two main concerns about a new treaty with Russia: protecting U.S. missile defense programs and ensuring that U.S. nuclear stockpiles remain reliable and safe. He said U.S. missile defense "is not constrained by this treaty" and that Obama's budget includes nearly $5 billion for nuclear infrastructure and maintaining stockpiles.
"I think the prospects are quite good" for ratification, he said.
Mullen said the joint chiefs "stand solidly behind this new treaty, which he said "allows us to deploy and maintain" the U.S. strategic nuclear triad of bombers, submarines and missiles in keeping with U.S. commitments.
However, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) gave voice to the skepticism of GOP lawmakers Friday afternoon, issuing a statement stressing that the United States faces growing threats from Iran and North Korea.
"Protecting our homeland and our allies from missile attack is one of our highest national security priorities," Boehner said. "We will review the proposal and ensure that nothing in the proposed treaty, nor any side agreements or understandings, gives the Russians any leverage to limit the United States' ability to deploy a robust missile defense system in Europe."