WASHINGTON -- The leaders of Russia and the United States agreed today to begin immediate nuclear arms reduction talks with the aim of completing an agreement before another key pact expires in December (see GSN, March 30).
"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. We are instructing our negotiators to start talks immediately on this new treaty and to report on results achieved in working out the new agreement by July," says a joint statement issued today by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The two met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 global economic summit in London and agreed to meet next in Moscow in July.
The 1991 agreement, which limits each nation to deploying no more than 6,000 warheads on at most 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles, is set to expire in December. Moscow and Washington later agreed in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty to cap their operationally deployed warheads at 2,200 each by 2012, but that pact entirely lacks the verification and monitoring provisions laid out by START.
This year, negotiators have been instructed to seek a new cap of about 1,500 deployed warheads, the New York Times reported today, citing U.S. and Russian officials, although the presidents' statement does not offer any numerical goals.
One arms control expert agreed that 1,500 was the likely target.
"What we can expect in this START follow-on agreement are reductions to about 1,500 or below of operationally deployed strategic warheads, along with lower limits on strategic delivery systems," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association (see related GSN story, today).
Such a limit would represent an enormous reduction from Cold War levels, when the United States and Soviet Union aimed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at each other, but also represents a more modest goal than many arms control advocates have been seeking. After wallowing for decades, interest in the global elimination of nuclear weapons has gained new traction in recent years, due in part to the initiative of a group of U.S. statesmen who have been encouraging steps toward that goal (see GSN, March 20).
Obama and Medvedev recognized that times have changed.
"The era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over," they said. "We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries."
"Over the last several years the relationship between our two countries has been allowed to drift," Obama told reporters after meeting Medvedev today. "What I believe we've begun today is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest, like the reduction of nuclear weapons and the strengthening of our nonproliferation treaties; our mutual interest in dealing with terrorism and extremism that threatens both countries."
Medvedev agreed with Obama's assessment of recent years and looked forward.
"Relations ... were drifting, and drifting in some wrong directions. They were degrading, to some extent," he told reporters. "Such a situation was not to the benefit of the United States or Russian Federation, to say nothing about the global situation. We believe that the time has come to reset our relations, as it was said, and to open a new page in progression in the development of our common situation" (see GSN, Feb. 9).
While both leaders expressed optimism, they did not resolve a primary dispute that Russia has threatened to link to strategic arms cuts. Moscow has bitterly complained about a Bush administration initiative to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Europe, a plan that Obama has yet to endorse or reject.
"The relationship between offensive and defensive arms will be discussed by the two governments," says today's statement, while agreeing to discuss possible cooperation in missile defense activities.
The two leaders also put off a discussion of what to do if a new agreement is not ready by the time START expires. A legally binding treaty would require a ratification process that has historically required months or years. The treaty allows for a simple five-year extension, but that decision needed to be made before December 2007, according to the agreement's Article 17.
One option would have the presidents declare that they will adhere to the treaty's provisions after the pact expires as long as the two sides are making progress on a successor agreement.
On related issues, the two leaders agreed to continue working to improve security over nuclear weapons and materials, to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium around the world, and to pursue the creation of a nuclear fuel bank intended to persuade developing nations to abstain from producing their own nuclear materials.
One expert praised their mention of nuclear terror.
"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," Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said in a prepared statement.
In addition, Obama and Medvedev pledged to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and "President Obama confirmed his commitment to work for American ratification of this treaty." Russia ratified the pact in 2000.
[Editor's Note: Sam Nunn is co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]