(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart ended with a landmark agreement to reopen negotiations about reducing the two countries’ nuclear warheads, a step towards “achieving a nuclear free world.”
“The era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over,” Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev said in a joint statement after meeting at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London on the eve of Thursday’s G-20 summit.
Obama agreed to visit Moscow in July, by which time nuclear negotiators would be expected to report on progress.
A senior administration official afterwards described as a “very significant breakthrough” the decision to instruct negotiators to work on a verifiable, legally- binding follow-on agreement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which is due to expire in December.
Under START, the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to reduce their arsenals to 6,000 nuclear warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles per country. An additional treaty in 2002, signed in Moscow between former presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, envisioned a December 2012 goal of between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed warheads on each side.
Obama and Medvedev agreed the new agreement would go further than the Moscow treaty – suggesting a goal of below 1,700 on each side as well as more stringent verification procedures. The administration official in the post-meeting briefing said, however, that it was premature to say the two sides had already settled on arms-reduction targets.
“We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world, while recognizing that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations,” the leaders’ statement said.
“We agreed to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with a new, legally-binding treaty.”
The administration official identified Rose Gottemoeller, Obama’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, as the chief U.S. negotiator in the process.
In appointment hearings last week Gottemoeller, former director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “President Obama is committed to negotiating a follow-on agreement to replace START and to continuing along the path to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.”
The Arms Control Association believes that the U.S. currently deploys at least 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads, with about the same number in reserve, while Russia is believed to deploy between 2,000 and 3,000, in addition to at least 2,000 available non-strategic nuclear weapons and another 8,000 in reserve or awaiting dismantlement.
Former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, welcomed the Obama-Medvedev statement, highlighting especially their pledge to work together to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.
“It is equally important that they both understand that the essential steps required to
achieve this goal must be accomplished together and that we must get other nations to join us,” he said.
“We must do all we can to prevent nuclear weapons and materials from getting into
dangerous hands, to prevent their proliferation and, ultimately, to end them as a threat to the world. There should be no higher security priority than keeping nuclear weapons and materials out of the hands of terrorists.”
Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney voiced concern about the agreement.
“This is vintage old-think of the Cold War stripe – ‘we’ve got to get back into arms control negotiations with the … preeminent power,’” he told Fox News on Wednesday. “This simply doesn’t apply, and what’s worse, it makes things more dangerous.”
Asked whether Obama’s move constituted appeasement, Gaffney replied that it would be seen as such by America’s enemies, and feed the perception that the U.S. is weak – a perception that in the past had translated into “aggression on the part of our foes.”
Wednesday’s nuclear agreement stood in contrast to the areas where Obama and Medvedev acknowledged that the two sides continue to differ, including Russia’s invasion of Georgia last August and U.S. missile shield plans for Central Europe. The Pentagon says the umbrella is needed to defend the West against Iranian missiles; Russia says it diminishes its own nuclear deterrent and has threatened to retaliate by deploying missiles in its westernmost territory, bordering Poland.
But both leaders gave optimistic assessments of prospects for improved bilateral relations, highlighting areas of cooperation.
Obama in brief public comments referred to “our mutual interest in dealing with terrorism and extremism that threatens both countries; our mutual interest in economic stability and restoring growth around the world; our mutual interest in promoting peace and stability in areas like the Middle East.”
In their statement, they expressed concern about North Korea’s plan to launch a rocket in the coming days, agreed to work together to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan, and urged Tehran to “address the international community’s concerns” about its nuclear programs.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said afterwards there was a “readiness to listen to each other, something we had lacked for many years.”