By Michael A. Fletcher and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
MOSCOW, July 6 -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reached a preliminary agreement Monday to cut the American and Russian nuclear arsenals by as much as a third while exploring options for cooperation on missile defense.
The agreement lays out a clear yet difficult path to replace a landmark arms-control treaty that will expire in December. The pact was the most significant among those signed at a summit designed to show that "resetting" relations between the two nations could bridge longstanding differences.
The two leaders also signed agreements allowing the transit of U.S. military personnel and weapons through Russia to Afghanistan, restoring military-to-military ties and pledging cooperation to limit the spread of nuclear materials.
The deal instructs negotiators to draft a new accord that would maintain the critical verification mechanisms of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads in each country to between 1,500 and 1,675, down from the previous ceiling of 2,200.
"As the world's two leading nuclear powers, the United States and Russia must lead by example, and that's what we're doing here today," Obama said at a news conference in the Grand Kremlin Palace's ornate St. Andrew Hall after the signing ceremonies.
Medvedev described the arms-control agreement as a "reasonable compromise" and "the first but very important step in the process of improving full-scale cooperation between our two countries."
But the two leaders were unable to resolve a dispute over reductions in missile launchers and bombers, agreeing only that the START limit of 1,600 of such "delivery vehicles" for each country should be lowered to between 1,100 and 500.
The wide range reflects continuing U.S. unwillingness to accept the Kremlin's demands for sharp cuts and could make it difficult for a new treaty to be negotiated and ratified before START expires.
The Russian military is worried that the launchers and bombers could be used to quickly rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal and would pose a threat to Russian forces even if armed with non-nuclear warheads. But sharper reductions would be difficult for the Obama administration to accept politically.
The two presidents appeared to achieve progress in the long-standing dispute over U.S. missile defense plans, agreeing to work together to assess threats posed by countries such as Iran and North Korea. They also agreed to explore cooperation in missile defense and intensify talks on establishing a joint center for early detection of hostile launches.
While most of the agreements announced Monday were worked out by negotiators ahead of the summit, Obama and Medvedev reached the deal on missile defense themselves, said Michael A. McFaul, a senior Russia expert in the Obama administration.
Until the meeting, Russia had refused to accept any statement on missile defense cooperation unless the United States also renounced plans for deploying the system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Obama said he told Medvedev that his administration is still reviewing missile defense options in Europe and that it will brief Russia on its conclusions "as soon as that review is complete," which he indicated should be before the end of the summer.
McFaul said the two sides were just beginning to talk about how they might cooperate on missile defense, but he expressed confidence that the issue will no longer pose an obstacle to replacing START. "I get a sense we're really on track to finish this irrespective of what happens on missile defense," he said.
Aides said talk of Iran and missile defense dominated the nearly four-hour meeting Obama held with Medvedev. Accompanied by their wives, the leaders later reconvened for dinner at Medvedev's dacha.
Independent analysts called the deal a modest but significant first step.
"This is an agreement that is vitally important, because it maintains a system for verification and regulation of the world's two largest arsenals," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the nonprofit Arms Control Association. "But the cuts they're outlining are modest cuts. That's understandable, given the short timeline they have for completing a deal, but it also highlights how much more is left to be done."
The two countries also forged an agreement enabling the United States to transport military personnel and equipment across Russian territory to support U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. White House officials said that the ability to fly troops and supplies through Russian airspace would save the military more than $100 million a year in fuel and air navigation costs.
Russia and the United States also agreed to reestablish military-to-military relations, which were suspended last year after Russia's war with neighboring Georgia. In his public remarks, Obama went out of his way to reiterate his commitment to Georgia's sovereignty, and an aide said later that the president also told Medvedev that the United States would "never" recognize the independence of two breakaway regions supported by Russia. But the two leaders agreed to work to prevent any renewal of fighting in the volatile region, Obama said.
The joint understanding on nuclear arms is intended to guide negotiations on a new, comprehensive and legally binding agreement to replace START, which will expire Dec. 5.
When they met in London in April, the two presidents agreed to begin negotiations for a new treaty. Administration officials called it a major achievement that a framework for a new deal was established so quickly.
Obama arrived in Moscow from Washington for a three-day summit Monday afternoon accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia. They were driven to Russia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
At the memorial, a band played a mournful tune as a military escort accompanied the president and first lady in a slow procession to a bowl with a flickering flame. The soldiers placed a wreath before the flame, and Obama adjusted it a little before the band struck up the American national anthem.
Obama's motorcade then departed for the Kremlin Palace, where Obama began his meetings with Medvedev.
A new nuclear weapons treaty is seen as the first step toward Obama's goal of sharply reducing the world's nuclear stockpiles. The administration considers cuts by Russia and the United States, which together control more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal, crucial to marshaling stronger international opposition to nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
Obama also sees the treaty as part of a larger nonproliferation effort that could lead toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons around the world.
"This is an urgent issue and one in which the United States and Russia have to take leadership," 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."