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Obama and Medvedev Work to Reduce Nuclear Warheads

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President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London on Wednesday. Both say they'll try to put a new nuclear arms reduction deal in place before the existing treaty expires in December. Video by AP

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Jeffrey Mankoff
Adjunct Fellow for Russia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; 2:00 PM

President Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev launched negotiations on a new nuclear arms treaty today, even as they agreed to pursue new and broader cooperation across a wide range of policy areas.

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"The meeting seems to have been fairly positive so far, in part because both leaders went in with a clear sense of what they wanted to accomplish and a desire to overcome some of the deterioration in US-Russia relations of the past few years," said Jeffrey Mankoff, adjunct fellow for Russia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an e-mail interview with washingtonpost.com.

Mankoff was online Wednesday, April 1, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the negotiations and what to expect from the new treaty.

"The presidents decided to begin bilateral intergovernmental negotiations to work out a new, comprehensive, legally binding agreement on reducing and limiting strategic offensive arms," a statement says. Obama told reporters that he will travel to Moscow in July, the date by which the two leaders said their negotiators should report progress on the new arms reduction treaty.

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Jeffrey Mankoff: Hi. This is Jeff Mankoff with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). I'm here to take questions on the meeting between Presidents Medvedev and Obama at the G20 today and about US-Russia relations more generally.

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Anonymous: What prompted this meeting to negotiate on arms control?

Jeffrey Mankoff: The START-1 agreement, which is central to the existing US-Russia arms control agenda, is set to expire at the end of 2009. The Bush Administration was lukewarm about extending START-1 or replacing it with another agreement that contained strong verification measures, so the issue kind of languished until Obama took office in January. For Moscow, arms control is very important both as a sign of Russia's importance to the United States and as a way of preventing Washington from attaining nuclear superiority, given the decline of Russia's own nuclear capability.

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Fairfax, Va.: What exactly does this upcoming treaty mean and how does it relate to other countries who have nuclear weapons?

Jeffrey Mankoff: We will see. Obviously nuclear proliferation is something that both the US and Russia see as a serious threat, even if they evaluate the Iranian danger, for instance, differently. Getting both Moscow and Washington to commit to further reducing their arsenals is an important step in convincing other states not to pursue nuclear weapons.

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Washington, D.C.: Are the U.S. and Russia still the superpowers of the world? Is there more for the U.S. to worry about other than Russia? What about North Korea, Iran?

Jeffrey Mankoff: The US is still clearly the most powerful state in the world, though it faces a number of constraints (including major economic challenges and the rise of other large powers). Russia is not in that league anymore. In economic terms it is a long way behind China, Japan, Europe, and others. Apart from its nuclear arsenal, the Russian military is also relatively weak. Still, as it showed in Georgia last summer, Russia has the capacity to frustrate US designs, especially in the post-Soviet region. And it still possesses leverage with countries like North Korea and Iran that the US would be wise to take advantage of.

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Arlington, Va.: Where is Putin? Is he out now? Are there two Russian leaders? Haven't attempts been made in the past between the two countries to negotiate and respect freedom and human rights?

Jeffrey Mankoff: Even though he stepped down from the presidency last year, Putin is still very much a player (he is now prime minister). He has greatly strengthened the role of the prime minister, and the new president, Dmitry Medvedev is a Putin protege whom many expect will step down in 2012 to allow Putin to stage a return. With Russia's own economic crisis, there appears increasingly to be a split between the Putin and Medvedev camps, with the latter favoring greater economic reform and integration, and the latter preferring a more protectionist approach.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Does the situation in Georgia present any complications in the current negotiations between the U.S. and Russia? Also, has the Obama administration made any changes in the official policies towards the situations in Georgia?

Jeffrey Mankoff: For now it looks like Moscow and Washington will agree to disagree about Georgia. The US will not recognize the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and maintains that Georgia will eventually join NATO. The Obama administration has de-emphasized Georgia in its relationship with Russia and warned the Georgians that Washington cannot protect them from Moscow. So even though Obama remains committed to the idea of Georgian NATO membership, it is not something the US is going to pursue in the near future.

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College Park, Md.: Did, in any way, the state of the world economy, have any effect on this opening up for negotiation the relationship between the U.S. and Russia?

Jeffrey Mankoff: Indirectly at least. Russia's economy has been hit quite hard by the global financial crisis, and many in Moscow are coming to believe that Russia cannot afford the rather assertive foreign policy it has pursued over the last few years. The financial crisis seems to have taken Russian leadership by surprise--they did not grasp the extent to which Russia was already integrated into, and dependent upon, the world economy. If international investors are worried about Russia's direction, they are not going to invest in Russia.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you anticipate this meeting and negotiation with Russia in July to be a prelude to possible future talks with other countries who have nuclear weapons?

Jeffrey Mankoff: Hopefully. In their joint statement today, Medvedev and Obama called for "joint efforts to strengthen the international regime for nonproliferation." They also talked about greater cooperation with the IAEA to promote multilateral control over the nuclear fuel cycle. These are steps in the right direction, and since the US and Russia still have the world's main nuclear arsenals, other nuclear powers or countries with nuclear aspirations will continue looking to them for leadership.

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Chantilly, Va.: In your opinion, will the world ever disarm?

Jeffrey Mankoff: I assume you're talking about nuclear weapons. The idea of complete disarmament has been getting more and more support recently. Even Henry Kissinger has suggested moving toward full disarmament. I am somewhat skeptical that we will ever be able to get to zero, but in general, support for serious nuclear arms limitation is higher now than it has been at just about any point since the end of the Cold War. That has to be a good sign.

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Washington, D.C.: What are the protesters in London protesting? Anything about the U.S. or Russia? Or is it all economic?

Jeffrey Mankoff: I would be surprised if many of the protesters were upset about attempts by the US and Russia to improve their relationship, though I have not seen a breakdown of what the protests are about or interviews with the protesters themselves, so I may be wrong.

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Dumb question: Does the U.S. keep any nuclear weaponry on their military bases in foreign lands?

Jeffrey Mankoff: Not any more. The last Pershing missiles in West Germany were withdrawn with the signing of the INF Treaty.

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Washington, D.C.: Obama said before his meeting with Medvedev that he has no interest in "papering over" the "very real differences between the United States and Russia." What are those real differences (in a nutshell)?

Jeffrey Mankoff: There are some real differences over the status of the post-Soviet space (Georgia and Ukraine in particular). Russia continues to see these countries as part of its "sphere of privileged interests," a notion the United States rejects. They also disagree about energy security, about NATO and NATO expansion, about Iran, and to certain degree, about Afghanistan. The US is also critical of Russia's growing authoritarianism and hostility to democracy in its neighbors.

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Albany, N.Y.: Do you believe that this bilateral agreement is the beginning of a truly amicable relationship between the U.S. and Russia in regards to other policies too? What more could be done to repair this relationship that has recently been deteriorating?

Jeffrey Mankoff: There are still a number of serious disagreements that it may not be possible to overcome. Still, I am hopeful that we are seeing the beginning of a dynamic where Moscow and Washington are willing to seek accommodation where possible and at least avoid the really damaging clashes that have characterized their relationship over the past few years. Both sides seem to have realized that to a certain extent, they need the other.

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Jeffrey Mankoff: Thank you all for your questions. It's great knowing that so many people are interested in the future of US-Russia relations, which are extremely important to the US and US security interests around the world. Thanks again to all of you.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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