By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; 9:31 AM
PRAGUE -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a sweeping new arms reduction pact Thursday that pledges to reduce the stockpile of deployed, strategic nuclear weapons in both countries and commits the old Cold War adversaries to new procedures to verify which weapons each country possesses.
Obama arrived in this historic city Thursday morning to formalize a step toward the vision he laid out here a year ago -- of a world without nuclear weapons.
The leaders met privately for about an hour before signing the pact in a ceremony hosted by the Czechs and full of symbolism. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was among the many dignitaries looking on as Obama and Medvedev began signing, at one point exchanging amused glances as if to say, "This isn't so hard."
"Together, we have stopped the drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation," Obama said in remarks a short time later. ". . . This day demonstrates the determination of the United States and Russia -- the two nations that hold over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- to pursue responsible global leadership."
U.S. officials said the full treaty document, just now finished after months of negotiation, would be posted on the Internet later Thursday. The White House also announced that Medvedev would visit the United States for a summit this summer.
The treaty, called New START, imposes new limits on ready-to-use, long-range nuclear weapons and pledges to reduce the two biggest nuclear arsenals on the globe. Both countries will be limited to 1,550 ready-to-use, long-range nuclear weapons in addition to the other parts of their nuclear stockpile.
Arms control advocates have expressed disappointment in the treaty, saying it does not go far enough in reducing the dangerous weapons on both sides. Some conservatives have raised questions about the treaty's impact on the American nuclear deterrent.
But experts from the right and the left agree the treaty extends a verification plan that has allowed the world's two nuclear giants to maintain stability that has existed for the past 20 years.
In the United States, attention will soon turn to the Senate, where the White House is pushing for ratification of the pact by the end of 2010.
In a briefing on Air Force One en route to Prague, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs expressed optimism that the Senate will act despite the partisan rancor of the past year.
"We are hopeful that reducing the threat of nuclear weapons remains a priority for both parties," Gibbs said. White House officials said they will begin formally briefing senators Thursday.
Senior U.S. officials said Obama's trip to Prague is designed to set the stage for further efforts by the president to argue for reductions in the spread of nuclear weapons around the globe.
The treaty's new limits on Russian and American nuclear weapons are important in their own right, officials said, but are also crucial in restoring a "moral legitimacy" to both countries as they seek to restrain other nations from becoming nuclear powers.
"The signing of the new treaty is part of an overall strategy to put us in a strong political position to mobilize support," said one top White House adviser. "By restoring our moral legitimacy it puts us in a much stronger position."
White House aides said the treaty demonstrates that both countries have taken a "serious step" toward nuclear disarmament, and predicted in advance that the conversation would quickly shift to efforts by the world community to deal with Iranian and Korean nuclear ambitions.
"All of that will come to a head in May," when the U.S. hosts a conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York, said one senior official. "Everybody understands that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. The question is whether the countries in the NPT and the United Nations will be acting together to stop Iran."
On the flight to Prague, Gibbs told reporters that the questions of sanctions on Iran would be a key part of the discussions, but said that both presidents would defer to the multilateral negotiations on that issue underway in New York.
"I don't expect any pronouncements today coming out of this meeting," Gibbs said before it started.
As they prepared for Thursday's signing ceremonies at the Prague Castle, Obama aides made clear that they viewed the president's meetings with Medvedev as a broader opportunity to discuss the improving relationship between the two countries.
Both countries sent full delegations to the Czech Republic, a sign that U.S. officials said reflects the desire for a wide-ranging discussion between the two leaders. One top Obama aide said the two presidents intended to discuss economic issues that have been largely overshadowed by months of nuclear talks.
"This is a full-blown summit," said one White House official, who predicted that Obama would raise issues including climate change, European security, missile defense issues and the conflict in Afghanistan.
"We're going to have a very substantive meeting with President Medvedev," the official said. "This is not just a relationship about arms control."
Obama advisers said the meeting will begin to lay the groundwork for a visit to the United States by Medvedev this summer -- a reciprocal visit for Obama's trip to Moscow last July.
U.S. aides are eager to portray the American-Russian relationship as vastly improved, an achievement they attribute to Obama's decision to "reset" relations when the two leaders first met in London last April.
"Let's remember where U.S.-Russian relations were when we took office," one top adviser said. "We were at one of the lowest points in a quarter-century. We're only now 15 months from that and we're in a different kind of relationship."