Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, hold up their signed copies of the nations' latest strategic arms treaty, called New START, on Thursday at Prague Castle in the Czech capital.
President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, hold up their signed copies of the nations' latest strategic arms treaty, called New START, on Thursday at Prague Castle in the Czech capital. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. and Russia signed their first strategic arms treaty in nearly two decades Thursday, aiming to draw down their nuclear arsenals by as much as one-third while forging improved relations between the former Cold War rivals.
President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the so-called New START at a noon ceremony in Prague, where a year ago Obama delivered a landmark speech committing the U.S. to push for a reduction in nuclear arms.
"This ceremony is a testament to the truth that old adversaries can forge new partnerships," Obama said after the signing in the Spanish Hall, a lavish Renaissance chamber in the Czech capital's presidential castle complex.
"Given this legacy of the Cold War, it is critical for us to show significant leadership," he said.
The agreement commits both nations to slashing their strategic nuclear warheads by 30 percent, to 1,550 over seven years, while halving the number of missiles, submarines and bombers that deliver them. The U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma still must ratify the treaty.
"Those nations that follow the rules will find greater security and opportunity. Those nations that refuse to meet their obligations will be isolated, and denied the opportunity that comes with international recognition," Obama said, referring to commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.
The White House also hopes the treaty will help set the stage for more international pressure on countries, such as Iran, that are working to develop their own nuclear weapons.
"Those nations that refuse to meet their obligations will be isolated," Obama said, referring to international commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.
The president said the Iranians have "continually failed to meet their obligations."
He called the spread of nuclear weapons to more states an unacceptable risk to global security that threatens to spark an arms race from the Middle East to East Asia.
Step Toward Fulfilling A Year-Old Pledge
For Obama, who arrived in Prague after an overnight flight from Washington, D.C., the pact is a partial fulfillment of a pledge he made a year ago in a speech credited with helping him earn the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the speech, he pledged to work quickly toward reducing nuclear arsenals and getting a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty in place. The latter promise remains unrealized.
The U.S. president also praised the treaty as an opportunity to "reset" strained relations with Moscow, which have been at a low since Moscow's 2008 invasion of Georgia.
START I: Signed 1991; active 1994 to 2009. Limited U.S. and USSR (later Russia) to 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads and a total of 1,600 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Established inspection and verification regimes that were the foundation for subsequent arms-reduction agreements.
START II: Signed 1993; active 1996 to present. Banned MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles), which allow each ballistic missile to carry many warheads.
START III: Never signed; would have limited U.S. and Russia to 2,000-2,500 warheads (Moscow proposed deeper reduction, to as few as 1,000 warheads). U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 effectively killed these negotiations.
New START: Signed Thursday; must be ratified by U.S. Senate and Russia's Duma. Limits both sides to 1,550 warheads and a total of 800 ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers, such as the U.S. B-52 and Russia's Tu-22 "Backfire."
Medvedev referred to the "truly historic" agreement that would "open a new page" in relations.
"Together, we have stopped that drift" between the U.S. and Russia, which together possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, he said.
Medvedev agreed that "together, we have stopped that drift" in relations between the U.S. and Russia, which together possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons.
"We are working together at the United Nations Security Council to pass strong sanctions on Iran, and we will not tolerate actions that flout NPT," he said.
Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, told NPR that while it's unlikely Russia will go as far as Washington would like in sanctioning Iran, "certainly they are talking about steps now that they weren't talking about a year ago. That's good news."
NPR's Scott Horsley, reporting from Prague, said such agreements between Moscow and Washington have historically paid dividends broader than just arms reductions.
"Where there has been progress in arms control, there has been progress in other areas of U.S.-Russia relations," Horsley told Morning Edition. "In particular, Russia is already allowing the U.S. to fly through its airspace carrying lethal materials to Afghanistan."
However, the hope for improved ties between the two nations met earlier this week with a dose of old-style Cold War rhetoric when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated a threat to pull out of the START II — forged in the early 1990s — if Washington's proposed missile defense plan were deemed to threaten Russia.
START I, signed just two years before its successor, expired in December, leaving a vacuum, said Andrew Kuchins, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It meant that you were going to lose the entire verification and monitoring regimes that went along with that," Kuchins told NPR. "So, I think for the Obama folks, being able to replace the treaty and maintain a significant degree of that ... is probably the most important achievement from the standpoint of U.S. national security."
While Moscow has welcomed the Obama administration's decision to scrap plans for missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia remains concerned about the prospect of a revamped U.S. missile defense shield, including a planned facility in Romania.
The New START comes just days after the White House announced a fundamental shift in U.S. nuclear policy that has labeled the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists or rogue nations, such as North Korea or Iran, as a greater threat than the Cold War danger of mutual destruction.
Next week, leaders from more than 40 countries will gather in Washington to discuss boosting defenses against terrorists seeking nuclear weapons. The White House also plans next month to lead calls to strengthen the NPT during an international conference at the United Nations.
Getting the New START signed before the meeting at the U.N. in New York "allows the American delegation at those talks to say 'the United States is doing its part; it's cutting nuclear weapons,' " Pifer said.
A two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate is required to ratify the treaty, something the Obama administration hopes can happen with the help of key Republicans such as Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who supports the agreement.
NPR's Horsley said that despite GOP roadblocks that have made passing anything in the Senate a herculean task for the White House, "historically, arms control has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the Senate."
The White House, he said, hopes to have the treaty ratified by the end of the year.
With reporting from NPR's Scott Horsley in Prague, and additional material from The Associated Press