U.S., Russia sign pact to cut nuclear arsenals

Reporting from Washington and Prague, Czech Republic -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a treaty Thursday to shrink their nuclear arsenals, hoping to open an era of improved relations between the former superpower foes while launching an arms-control 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 since half a century ago, the days of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.

But the signing of the pact in the Czech capital also pointed to challenges confronting Obama as he offers a plan to control the world’s nuclear arms and address future international security threats. In effect, the treaty signed Thursday focuses on the legacy of the Cold War. What lies ahead is an effort to forge a consensus on how to deal with the nuclear programs of countries such as Iran and North Korea.

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 is to host a meeting of the heads of more than 40 nations in Washington to forge an agreement on better safeguarding nuclear materials that could fall into the hands of terrorists. In an indication of the tough road ahead, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled plans to attend the summit. Israeli officials said he was reacting to reports that Egypt and Turkey intended to raise the issue of Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal at the conference.

In May, U.S. officials hope to persuade other world powers to strengthen the fraying Nuclear Nonproliferation 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 Washington and Moscow. The accord marks a concrete achievement in Obama’s bid to “reset” relations with Russia after its conflict with neighboring Georgia in August 2008.

“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. “Both parties have won.”

The two sides have been reducing their nuclear arsenals for decades. But U.S. and Russian inventories still account for more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. The treaty may lay a foundation for negotiations to make deeper cuts.

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 submarines, missiles and bombers that carry them to 800, down from the 1,600 permitted under the START I treaty of 1991.

To meet the targets, neither country is expected to have to dismantle a large number of weapons. Also, the treaty leaves untouched the large stockpiles on both sides of smaller battlefield nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons in storage.

In office a little more than two months, Obama traveled to Prague last year to deliver a call for worldwide nuclear disarmament. Returning to the same city, Obama displayed an apparently warm relationship with Medvedev. The two leaders joked and exchanged praise.

Obama called Medvedev a “friend and partner.” Med- vedev, 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 the agreement, 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 to temper its nuclear ambitions. Now, as diplomats at the United Nations Security Council try to craft new sanctions against Iran, U.S. officials are pressing Russia to take a strong stand against a country that is both a business partner and ally. The U.S. and its allies suspect that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons; Tehran insists that its program is peaceful.

Medvedev signaled that Moscow is losing patience with Tehran, but that it wants to go only so far in bashing Iran.

Obama said he expected “strong, tough sanctions” this spring.

“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.”

Another major point of dispute is the continuing U.S. and Russian disagreement over missile defense.

American officials have insisted on complete freedom to develop new systems to counter “rogue” states, such as Iran and North Korea. But Russia’s leaders fear that the defenses could neutralize Moscow’s missiles and undermine Russia’s security, and have threatened to pull out of the new treaty if the U.S. builds a large new system.

These differences imperil efforts to craft a follow-on arms reduction treaty, which the two countries said they intend to begin negotiating as soon as Congress and the Russian State Duma have approved the treaty signed Thursday.

In their joint appearance , the leaders said they had agreed to expand their collaboration on missile defense. But each side would have to agree to provide the other with highly sensitive information on military technology. Basing issues would be difficult, because the Russians are likely to be uncomfortable with any missile fields being placed near their borders.

Because of the difficulty of the missile defense issue, some nuclear experts are pessimistic about prospects for speedy completion of a follow-up treaty.

Linton Brooks, a former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and Morton Halperin, a former State Department and White House official, predicted this week that the next U.S.-Russian treaty would still be under debate well past the end of Obama’s current term.

There is also uncertainty about ratification of New START. Although 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 say the pact could limit U.S. flexibility on missile defense, and may balk.

The last START follow-up treaty took three years to ratify in the 1990s.

Another question is whether Obama administration officials have gone too far in cultivating Medvedev, whom they regard as more progressive than the more influential Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Obama, who lavished praise on Medvedev this week, said last year that Putin had “one foot in the old ways and one foot in the new.”

Medvedev “is able as president to do a lot of things,” said Paul Saunders of the Nixon Center. But “when you talk about getting things done in Russia, Putin is really important. You don’t want to run the risk of alienating him.”