By Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 2, 2009
LONDON, April 1 -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced the start of negotiations Wednesday on a new strategic arms-control treaty that would cut each nation's long-range nuclear arsenal further than previous agreements, inaugurating what both men indicated would be a more pragmatic relationship than the one their predecessors pursued.
The 70-minute meeting, held at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Britain, produced a joint statement pledging cooperation on issues including Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, nuclear proliferation and reviving the global economy. The statement also noted that "differences remain" over U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe, Russia's war with Georgia last year, and NATO's plan to expand deeper into what Russia considers its traditional sphere of influence.
Speaking to reporters from a sitting area overlooking the rolling lawn outside Obama's guesthouse, Obama and Medvedev shunned the personal analysis that accompanied the 2001 meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, when the American leader said he was "able to get a sense of his soul." That initial meeting defined the Bush-Putin relationship for years, a period when U.S. and Russian interests diverged sharply on policies regarding security, energy and human rights.
"What I believe we've begun today is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest," Obama said after the private meeting, held on the eve of the Group of 20 economic meeting. He announced that he plans to travel to Moscow in July for a summit.
Medvedev, a lawyer by training who is showing signs of trying to emerge from Putin's shadow, said: "I can only agree that relations between our countries have been adrift over the past years."
He added: "There are far more points in which we can, where we can come closer, where we can work, rather, on those points where we have differences."
The Medvedev meeting was just one element of a day for Obama that included talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chinese leader Hu Jintao about the global economic crisis. Obama said he will also visit China before the end of the year. The day ended with an elaborate dinner at 10 Downing Street for leaders of the G-20 countries, whose combined economies account for 85 percent of the world's economy.
But the Medvedev talks were the most scrutinized part of Obama's second day here, with observers eager to assess how a relative novice to international politics would work with a Russian government that in just the past year has cut off gas supplies to Europe in the middle of winter and waged war in Georgia to protect its interests.
"Both of these guys are wary of producing any new jokes about souls and eyes," said Stephen Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They know the relationship has not been good, and if you look at the statement of what they want to work on, it's less warm than the Bush-Putin Sochi agreement of last year, which mentioned friendship, partnership and human rights."
Officials from both countries described the meeting as businesslike.
"We are not being naive about this," a senior U.S. official said. "When there's disagreement, we're going to honestly disagree. But we're going to try to avoid problems that come as a result of misunderstandings."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised what he called a "new atmosphere of mutual trust . . . which does not create the illusion of good relations because they develop well on a personal level but which ensures taking into account mutual interests and readiness to listen to each other."
"We missed this much in the past years," he added.
Said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "I think it was a meeting without much intimacy to it, which is a good thing. They know what's to be expected, what's to be done, and neither is trying to recruit the other guy. No one is trying to impress each other.
"One little phrase by President Bush reverberated much more than any other," he continued. "And that was unhelpful as far as the relationship is concerned."
In a separate joint statement, the two leaders pledged to begin working immediately on an agreement to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which will expire at the end of this year. They committed to reducing their nuclear arsenals to levels lower than those mandated by the Moscow Treaty of 2002, which calls for both nations to have no more than 1,700 to 2,200 warheads by Dec. 31, 2012.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the new agreement would have to be signed by early August for the Senate to ratify it this year. The deadline probably means that Obama and Medvedev would have to sign the treaty during their July summit in Moscow.
The statement also called for "international negotiations for a verifiable treaty to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons," a step that has never been taken before.
Obama also pledged to work for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate rejected in 1999. Senate aides said Wednesday that trying to bring the treaty to a vote probably would take time, and they predicted that it does not currently have enough votes to pass.
The arms-reduction talks are designed to produce a treaty that contains stringent measures to verify warhead and missile levels, something that U.S. officials said the two countries have not attempted since the START treaty was signed almost 20 years ago. They dismissed more recent treaties negotiated by the Bush administration as "arms control lite" and said they would not hold what they called "drive-by summits."
Senior U.S. officials said Obama made clear to Medvedev that he will not recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway provinces of Georgia, as independent states. He also raised the case of Lev Ponomarev, a 67-year-old human rights activist who was badly beaten this week outside his Moscow apartment.
But the leaders pledged to cooperate on holding Iran to its disclosure commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The goal is to ensure that Iran is not using what its leaders say is a civilian nuclear energy program to make nuclear weapons, something the United States and others think is the case.
"It shouldn't be hard for them to ignore some issues that are not as a matter of simple realism going to be big obstacles to good relations," Sestanovich said. "The question is whether each side approaches this question in a stiff, exacting, lawyerly way that blocks progress."
Wilson reported from Washington. Staff writer Karen DeYoung and correspondent Mary Jordan contributed to this report.