LONDON – President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed Wednesday to open negotiations on a treaty that could slash their nuclear arsenals by one-third, part of what they described as a step “to move beyond Cold War mentalities” in relations between the two countries.
The agreement to undertake the most significant arms-control talks in more than a decade emerged from the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, and included a promise by Obama to visit Moscow this summer to pursue the talks.
“Over the last several years, the relationship between our two countries has been allowed to drift,” Obama said. “What I believe we’ve begun today is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest.”
The schism has developed over issues such as NATO expansion into countries once part of the Soviet Union and soured even further last summer when Russian troops fought a war with Georgia, a U.S. ally.
Wednesday’s consensus on the need for new nuclear weapons talks was the most concrete expression yet of the Obama administration’s decision to opt for improved relations with Russia rather than greater confrontation.
In turn, Medvedev said he was prepared to cooperate on non-proliferation, among other issues.
“It is important to note that there are many points on which we can work,” he said. “And indeed there are far more points where we can come closer, where we can work, rather than those points on which we have differences.”
For Russia, the push for a new nuclear treaty has as much to do with diplomatic clout as with strategic necessity, said Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russia program at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
“This is an area where Russia and the United States together can force the rest of the world to accept their view,” he said. “It makes Russia a global power again. Russia feels like it’s back to old times.”
Although hailed by arms control experts, word of the agreement was not seen as a surprising development. Obama is on record saying he favors beginning talks, and Russian officials have been eager to forge a new treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December.
The current treaty, which took effect in 1994, limits the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 nuclear warheads. A new treaty conceivably could cut arsenals to 1,500 warheads.
“This has been on the radar for quite some time,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “The fact that they’ve put it front and center of their bilateral agenda is important.”
The two men met with the media after their meeting, laughing at one another’s jokes – Obama said he preferred not to visit Russia in the winter – and smiling broadly as they shook hands.
But while the two leaders struck a friendly tone in the meeting, officials acknowledged a series of obstacles to an agreement that could be ready when START expires.
Russia remains intent on convincing Obama to scuttle the Bush administration’s plans for missile defense facilities close to Russia’s border, in Poland and the Czech Republic. The two sides did not discuss the missile defense plan on Wednesday, though the Obama administration has expressed a coolness toward plans for the system. The joint statement issued in London acknowledged Russia’s concerns.
Russia in recent weeks also has taken a hard-line stance on lingering strategic disputes with the United States. Medvedev has repeated warnings against expanding the NATO alliance close to the Russian border, and emphasized the need to update his country’s aging nuclear arsenal.
White House aides said the two leaders acknowledged significant points of disagreement during their meeting.
Obama told Medvedev that his administration will not recognize the independence of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Russian forces responded to a Georgian attack on rebels last summer by mounting an invasion.
Obama also made clear that he thinks the idea of a Russian “sphere of influence” in the region encompassing the former Soviet Union is “not a 21st-century idea,” one senior administration official said, briefing reporters under rules requiring he speak anonymously.
But Obama and Medvedev agreed to join against other perceived threats, Obama aides said, including worrisome nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
Obama said the process begun Wednesday would lead to discussions on “our mutual interest in dealing with terrorism and extremism that threatens both countries, our mutual interest in economic stability and restoring growth around the world, our mutual interest in promoting peace and stability in areas like the Middle East.”