Obama: Arms Pact Resets U.S.-Russia Relations

Russia and the United States have agreed to sharp cuts in their nuclear arsenals, President Obama announced Friday. The breakthrough represents a new phase in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. "It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. ... And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies," Obama said.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

President Obama today announced that Russia and the U.S. have agreed to sharp cuts in their nuclear arsenals. The breakthrough represents a new phase in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as START.

President BARACK OBAMA: Broadly speaking, the new START treaty makes progress in several areas. It cuts, by about a third, the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy. It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime, and it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies.

KELLY: NPR's Scott Horsley was there at the White House for the announcement, and he joins us now.

Scott, tell us a little bit more. Can you give us some more detail about what's actually in this agreement?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Mary Louise, the president called this the most comprehensive arms control agreement in almost two decades. That would be going back to 1991, when the START treaty was signed. That treaty lapsed - that original START treaty lapsed in December. And as you heard the president say, this new deal will lower the number of deployed nuclear warheads that each country can have by about a third over the next seven years. Now, that'll still give both countries more than 1,500 strategic warheads - more than enough, according to Defense Secretary Gates, to protect the U.S. security and the security of our European allies.

KELLY: And I gather they are set to ink this deal next month in Prague. It has been a long time coming, though, actually getting this on the table and getting it agreed to.

HORSLEY: That's right. President Obama and his Russian counterparts started talking about this last spring, when they met in London. This was the focus of their summit last summer. And they hoped to have a new START treaty agreed to before the old one ran out in December, but they kept running into some obstacles. One was Russia's concern about a U.S. missile defense system in Europe. Now, America has said that it made no concession in this treaty. But, of course, last fall, the president did call a halt to the Bush-era plan to deploy a missile defense system centered in Poland and the Czech Republic. That move did not completely allay Russia's concerns, so there continued to be sticking points. It dragged on past the expiration of the START treaty.

Real progress seemed to come earlier this month in a phone call between President Obama and Russian President Medvedev. They made a follow-up call this morning about 10:00 o'clock Eastern time, and it was in that call that I guess the last I was dotted and T crossed.

KELLY: And you mentioned these phone calls. This is a deal between the two presidents. What role is there in this process for the Congress? Where do they come in?

HORSLEY: It has to be ratified by the legislatures both here in the U.S. and in Russia, and the president has said he looks forward to strong, bipartisan ratification of this treaty. Mr. Obama met earlier this week with the top Democrat, John Kerry, and the top Republican, Richard Lugar on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to sort of update them on the progress of talks. Significantly, President Obama and Senator Lugar, the ranking Republican, have a personal history of working together on these nuclear nonproliferation issues. And the American team is stressing that all the previous arms control agreements with Russia have been - have enjoyed strong support from both parties in Congress. Of course, that was a - maybe a different Congress than what we have right now in Washington.

KELLY: Sure. Now, one of President Obama's goals is, of course, lowering the threat - not just from the established superpowers, but from developing nuclear powers. Does this agreement impact, in any way, a situation such as North Korea, Iran?

HORSLEY: Well, shortly after this treaty is signed in Prague early next month, the president's convening a summit meeting here in Washington with representatives from about 40 countries. It's designed to address concerns about loose nukes and rogue states becoming nuclear armed. And the feeling here is that when the U.S. and Russia - the leading nuclear powers - cut their own arsenals, that gives them more credibility to ask others to take steps in that direction.

KELLY: All right. Thanks very much. That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

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