President Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia signed a major nuclear arms control treaty on Thursday that aims to reduce existing nuclear stockpiles of both countries.
At the signing ceremony in Prague, where President Obama gave a speech last April calling for a world without nuclear weapons, the two leaders spoke of not only what the treaty will accomplish, but how this represents a major milestone in the dialogue between the US and Russia.
Relations between the two were very good, as they whispered and smiled to each other during the signing and spoke warmly of each other during a session with reporters. President Obama referred to President Medvedev as his “friend and partner,” who in turn said that they had developed a “very good personal relationship and a very good personal chemistry.”
President Obama recalled how President Medvedev said at their first meeting how “our relationship had started to drift, making it difficult to cooperate … When the United States and Russia are not able to work together on big issues, it’s not good for either of our nations, nor is it good for the world,” However, he concluded, “together, we’ve stopped that drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation.”
“I believe that this signature will open a new page for cooperation between our two countries – among our countries – and will create safer conditions for life here and throughout the world,” President Medvedev added.
In a press briefing Thursday, National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that the treaty helps the US and Russia show leadership regarding the Non-Proliferation Treaty. “By keeping our own obligations, we put ourselves in a stronger position to hold others accountable for violating their own obligations,” he said.
Russia did disagree with an American plan to build a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe to counter an Iranian nuclear threat and demanded limits on missile defense, but President Obama refused. Russian officials threatened to withdraw support for the treaty. The issue was only resolved after using nonbinding language in the treaty preamble that said there is a relationship between offensive and defensive weapons, though the treaty only sets limits on offensive weapons.
Additionally, en route to Prague aboard Air Force One Thursday morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that though the US has worked “constructively” with Russia regarding Iran and its nuclear development, he didn’t “expect any pronouncements today coming out of this meeting” regarding the sanctions issue.
The treaty itself commits the US and Russia to reducing levels of strategic warheads to 1,550, down from 2,200 under the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991 by one-third. Lasting ten years, this follows the original START treaty, which expired December 2009. It also includes separate limits of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), anti-ballistic missiles and heavy bombers and 800 missile launchers, which is a twofold reduction from current levels. Verification procedures were also included.
Currently, the two countries possess about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
“The signing of this treaty is a huge step forward in advancing the bipartisan nuclear security agenda that the President outlined in Prague in April 2009 to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons,” said John Issacs, executive director of The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, in a statement Thursday. “The sooner the treaty enters into force, the sooner important verification procedures can be up and running again.”
Before the treaty goes into effect, however, it must also be ratified by the Russian Duma – and the US Senate, with a two-thirds majority that will require at least eight Republican votes.
En route to Prague aboard Air Force One on Thursday morning, National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes repeated that nuclear arms control has enjoyed high levels of bipartisanship “from Reagan to Clinton to Bush,” with the last three arms reduction treaties passing with no less than 93 votes.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs also addressed the issue, saying, “If you look back at previous nuclear reduction treaties in the late ’80s, the early ’90s, and even as late at 2003, these are documents that enjoy vast bipartisan majorities – votes in the ’90s. We are hopeful that reducing the threat of nuclear weapons remains a priority for both parties.”
However, it took the Senate three years to ratify START 2, a follow-up to the original START treaty. The Senate also did not ratify the test ban treaty when it was originally brought to vote in 1999.
Former Republican Secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, have endorsed the new START treaty. According to an aide, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Indianapolis), the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has a “favorable” view of the treaty as well, though he says the “politics of this year” might complicate matters.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) have expressed concerns in two letters to the president. The first, which was also sent from a bipartisan group of 41 senators, discussed American nuclear defenses; the second questioned the use of the new language in the treaty that linked offensive and defensive weapons.
However, an aide to a leading Republican senator told CNN, “as long as the administration can satisfactorily answer questions about verification, missile defense and the modernization of the existing US stockpile, Republicans will likely support the new treaty.”
President Obama nevertheless said at the signing ceremony he believed the treaty would pass. “I’m actually quite confident that Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate, having reviewed [the treaty], will see that the United States has preserved its core national security interests … but that we are beginning to once again move forward, leaving the Cold War behind, to address new challenges in new ways.
“I think the START treaty represents an important first step in that direction, and I feel confident that we are going to be able to get it ratified,” he said.