PRAGUE, Czech Republic – President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday signed a new arms-control treaty designed to open a new era of harmony between the former superpower rivals while launching an arms agenda extending far into the future.
The two leaders met in the gilded majesty of a medieval castle in Prague, once a city at the epicenter of Cold War tension, and formally agreed to bring their nations’ arsenals to their lowest levels in half a century.
The treaty marks the most important step yet in Obama’s effort to “reset” relations with Russia, which he said have drifted after their low point of August 2008, when Russia invaded neighboring Georgia.
“Together, we have stopped the drift and proven the benefits of cooperation,” Obama said. “When the United States and Russia are not able to work together on big issues, it is not good for either of our nations, nor is it good for the world.”
Medvedev said the treaty would “open a new page” in Russian-American relations. But the signing of the pact also pointed to the challenges Obama confronts as he presses forward with ambitious plans to control the world’s arms and address future international security threats.
The New START treaty, named for the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties of the 1990s, resulted from eight months of contentious negotiation and represents the first in a series of steps Obama has planned with the goal of scaling back the world’s reliance on nuclear arms.
Next week, Obama hosts a meeting of the heads of more than 40 nations in Washington, D.C., to forge an agreement on better safeguarding nuclear materials that could fall into the hands of terrorists. Then, in May, U.S. officials hope to persuade other world powers to strengthen the fraying nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the central agreement on world efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
Although many arms experts consider the New START weapons reduction targets to be modest, the treaty is seen as a way to build confidence between the countries and lay a foundation for later negotiations that could produce deeper cuts. The U.S. and Russian inventories account for more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
The treaty would require each country to deploy no more than 1,550 long-range nuclear warheads, down from a current ceiling of 2,200. It would limit the number of the submarines, missiles and bombers that carry them to 800, down from the 1,600 permitted under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991.
To meet the targets in the treaty, neither country is expected to have to dismantle large number of weapons, which have been declining in recent years. The treaty leaves untouched the large stockpiles on both sides of smaller, battlefield nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons in storage.
Last year, Obama traveled to Prague to deliver his call for worldwide nuclear disarmament. Returning to the same city, Obama displayed an apparently warm relationship with Medvedev.
Obama called Medvedev a “friend and partner.” Medvedev, who is expected to receive a domestic political boost from the treaty, said the two “have a very good personal chemistry.”
But even as they savored a victorious moment, disagreements that could threaten the future of the relationship were close at hand.
U.S. and Russian officials have been struggling for years over how to persuade Iran – a Russian business partner and ally – to temper its nuclear ambitions. Now, as diplomats at the U.N. Security Council huddle over new round of sanctions against Iran, U.S. officials are pressing Russia to take a strong stand.
Obama said he expected “strong, tough sanctions” this spring, while Medvedev suggested that some countries wanted to punish Iran for the fun of it.
“What do we need sanctions for?” Medvedev asked. “Do we need them to enjoy the very fact of … imposing reprisals against another state?”
Rather, he said, sanctions are needed “to prompt Iran to behave properly; and second, but not least, to maintain the national interests of the countries.”
There is also uncertainty about ratification of New START. While White House officials said they expect to line up the 67 Senate votes needed for ratification this year, the Senate is polarized and entering a highly charged midterm election season. Some Republicans worry that the pact could be seen as limiting U.S. flexibility on missile defense and may balk at supporting it.