Arms Pact With Russia Advances Obama's Pledge

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President Obama signed a new strategic arms deal with Russia on Thursday in Prague, where he spoke one year ago of a world without nuclear weapons. The so-called New START requires both the U.S. and Russia to cut their nuclear arsenals. It still must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Renee Montagne.


And Im Steve Inskeep.

Today, President Obama is in Europe, where he signed a new arms control deal with Russia. He did so in Prague, the same city where the president spoke one year ago of a world without nuclear weapons. Today's agreement requires both the U.S. and Russia to cut their strategic nuclear arsenals.

MONTAGNE: In a moment, we'll ask just how much this agreement will really change. But we begin with today's signing ceremony, and we're joined by NPR's Scott Horsley, who's traveling with the president. He's speaking to us from the Czech capital. And Scott, what does this agreement do?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, we're all going to learn more about the details of the agreement when it's posted on the Internet and now that it's been signed. But what it essentially does is it requires both the U.S. and Russia to scale back their long-range nuclear arsenals over the next seven years by about a third. It also cuts the number of launchers that the two countries can have.

Both of those are important to the Russians, who wanted to maintain nuclear parity, since they lag the U.S. in conventional weapons. The other thing this treaty does is it imposes a verification regime, and that was very important to the United States, because the 1991 START treaty, which this deal replaces, had lapsed as of December, and so what this new deal allows the U.S. to do is to continue to monitor the Russian nuclear arsenal.

MONTAGNE: And as Steve just said, it was in Prague that Mr. Obama spelled out a long-range vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Does the White House see this as a big step in that direction?

HORSLEY: Well, it's certainly a step in that direction and the president stressed again today, as he did a year ago in Prague, that this is a long-range vision, that it may not happen in his lifetime, he says. But by reducing the arsenals of the two leading nuclear powers, the White House does see the world taking a step in that direction.

MONTAGNE: Now, the effort to keep a lid on nuclear weapons and nuclear material is a big theme for the president this spring. What else is he doing?

HORSLEY: That's right, Renee. Next week the president will host the leaders of more than 40 countries in Washington for a conference on safeguarding nuclear materials, and then in May leaders of countries from around the world will gather in New York to talk about how to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

What Mr. Obama has said is, again, by taking this step, Russia and the United States, which together have more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, they will now have more credibility in telling the world you need to do your part in living up to the non-proliferation treaty and controlling nuclear weapons.

MONTAGNE: And specifically about U.S.-Russian relations, what does this treaty say?

HORSLEY: The White House has said that U.S.-Russian relations were at a post-Cold War low when Mr. Obama came into office. He's made a reset in those relations a priority, and they see this, the successful signing of this treaty, as a step in that direction. Historically where there's been progress on arms control it has also led to progress on other areas between the U.S. and Russia. In particular, Russia is already allowing U.S. military forces to fly through its airspace carrying lethal materials into Afghanistan, and of course the White House is very concerned about having Russian support for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

MONTAGNE: And of course, Scott, all the pomp and circumstance of today's signing ceremony, it still has to get through the Senate. What about that?

HORSLEY: That's right. And it has to get through the Duma in Russia as well. Getting 2/3 of the vote for anything in the Senate is not an easy task these days, but the administration has pointed out that historically arms control has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the Senate. They hope that will be the case this time as well, and they would like to have this treaty ratified, they say, this year.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Scott Horsley speaking to us from Prague. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Renee.

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