U.S., Russia sign nuclear arms treaty

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

With an agreement to scale back the weaponry of the world’s two greatest nuclear powers, President Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev signed a long-sought treaty that still will require the ratification of both governments.

One year after unveiling his vision here for a world without nuclear weapons, Otama returned this morning to sign a treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that both sides call a major step forward on worldwide arms control.

In a ceremony at the medieval Prague Castle, Obama and Mevedev signed a “New START” treaty that administration officials say will bring U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels since the early 1960s.

The White House says the treaty will reduce the number of long-range deployed nuclear warheads by 30%, while also taking the two nations several strides forward in overall relations.

“One year ago this week,” Obama said after the signing, “I came here to Prague and gave a speech outlining America’s comprehensive commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and seeking the ultimate goal of a world without them. I said then -- and I will repeat now -- that this is a long-term goal, one that may not even be reached in my lifetime.

“But I believed then -- as I do now -- that the pursuit of that goal will move us further beyond the Cold War, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, and make the United States, and the world, safer and more secure.’

Medvedev, who sat beside Obama for the signing in an ornate hall, said: “Here in this room a truly historic event took place .... I believe that this signature ... will create safer conditions for life here and throughout the world.”

“Just a couple of months ago, [this] looked like mission impossible,” Medvedev added, but now, “this this is a win-win situation. No one stands to lose from this agreement .... The entire world community has won.”

But there were other tough subjects on the table as Obama and Medvedev convened for a one-on-one meeting at the castle, and then for the signing ceremony and a brief news conference.

Obama and Medvedev were expected to discuss the thorny issue of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Although Russia has signaled openness to the idea of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, Medvedev has not clearly stated how deeply committed he is to actually imposing sanctions.

An administration official said shortly before the bilateral meeting Thursday morning that he did not expect any major “pronouncements” on that topic.

“My expectation is we are going to be able to secure strong, tough sanctions on Iran this spring,” Obama said after the treaty signing. “President Medvedev and I have been able to build up a level of trust … that helped to facilitate our ability to work together jointly to present to Iran reasonable options that would allow it to clearly distance itself from nuclear weapons and pursue a path of peaceful nuclear energy.”

Medvedev said any sanctions should be designed to achieve a goal, not simply to punish Iran.

“Those sanctions should be smart, sanctions that are capable of producing proper behavior,” Medvedev said. “I have outlined our limits for such sanctions .… I, as president of the Russian Federation … will proceed from two premises: We need Iran to behave properly ... and to maintain the national interest of our countries ... smart sanctions should be able to motivate certain parties to behave properly.”

As Obama officials herald the treaty as a sign of dramatic progress in U.S.-Russian relations, Russian officials have been issuing warnings that they could pull out of the agreement at some future date. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has publicly emphasized that Russian adherence to the treaty’s terms is linked to how the U.S. acts on its missile defense program.

In a blog post on the White House website this morning, the White House’s new point man on the ratification effort downplayed the warnings, suggesting that they are less significant than the actual language of the hard-wrought treaty.

“Most treaties have a simple withdrawal clause, allowing a country to exit the particular treaty for any reason or no reason,” wrote Brian McKeon, senior advisor to the National Security Council and deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. “The withdrawal clause in the New START Treaty has a higher bar; it gives a party the right to withdraw if it decides that “extraordinary events” related to the treaty have “jeopardized its supreme interests.”

“The Russian statement does no more than give the United States fair notice that it may decide to pull out of the New START Treaty if Russia believes our missile defense system affects strategic stability,” McKeon said.

The exact terms of the entire agreement should become clearer by day’s end. Briefing reporters en route to Prague on Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the full treaty and its protocols will be posted online sometime Thursday.

The New START agreement bodes well for cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on missile defenses that have strained relations in recent years, the leaders said. That relationship “had started to drift,” Obama said today. “Together, we have stopped the drift.”

“I’m actually optimistic that having completed this treaty … sends a signal around the world that the U.S. and Russia are prepared to take leadership preventing the spread of nuclear weapons as well as materials,” Obama said.

“We have repeatedly said we would not do anything that limits my ability ... to protect the American people. We also want to make clear that the approach we’ve taken is in no way intended to change the strategic balance between the U.S. and Russia.

“It matters to us what will happen to anti-missile defense,” Medvedev said. “We will watch how these processes develop … This is a flexible process, and we are interested in close cooperation ... with our American partners.”

The missile shield matter is complicated by U.S. relationships with former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, some of them disconcerted by the warming of relations between the Americans and the Russians. At the end of the day, Obama plans to have dinner with leaders of 11 central European countries who want assurances of his commitment to their security.

Yet the signing of the treaty hardly guarantees its implementation. Obama must win support for it in the U.S. Senate, and ratification in the Russian Duma requires approval of both chambers.

Gibbs announced this morning that McKeon will head up the administration’s ratification effort. Administration officials will begin briefing Senate staff on the details of the treaty Thursday, deputy NSC advisor Ben Rhodes said, noting that consultations with Congress have been going on throughout the process.

Prior arms control treaties have been ratified with large bipartisan majorities, Gibbs said.

“We are hopeful that reducing the threat of nuclear weapons remains a priority for both parties,” Gibbs said.

Others point out that the treaty is caught in a tangled web of interests, highlighting the delicacy of the talks in Prague this week and in nuclear summits in the weeks to come.

“If we aren’t able to reach a meeting of the minds on sanctions, then other things . . . even the ratification of START . . . are really going to be jeopardized on Capitol Hill, where there’s not a whole lot of sympathy towards the Russians,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.

“The Russian strategy consistently on the Iranian nuclear issue and sanctions has been to try to find a way to appear that they are cooperating with the United States and our allies on this while not having to make a hard decision about selling Tehran down the road,” said Kuchins.

“There was a big hullabaloo in the fall when Mr. Medvedev said that the Russians are not categorically opposed to sanctions on Iran. I thought that was completely overplayed because the Russians have already supported three rounds of sanctions against Iran in the U.N.”

No such sanctions have been imposed.

Earlier this week, Obama unveiled his broader policy on nuclear weapons, hailed by high-ranking administration officials as a sharp departure from standing U.S. policy on nuclear arms.

Next week, he hosts a summit in Washington with 47 world leaders to discuss new ways to secure nuclear weapons and materials. And next month, he will push for more safeguards against proliferation at a conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The activity comes a year after Obama delivered a major address in Prague to unveil his “Global Zero” policy for nuclear weapons. At the time, he said he did not expect to achieve his goal during his lifetime, but called on other leaders to work toward it nonetheless.