President Barack Obama is taking the first major step in his push toward a nuclear-free world, returning to Prague to sign the kind of arms-reduction treaty with Russia unseen for nearly two decades.
The deal goes beyond modest arsenal reductions, offering Obama a chance to repair soured relations with Moscow and pursue more dramatic cuts in global nuclear weapon stockpiles.
The new treaty, to be signed Thursday by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, will shrink both nations’ arsenals of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 over seven years, about a third less than the 2,200 currently permitted. It was a year ago nearly to the day, also in Prague, that Obama outlined his agenda to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, with a long-range goal of eliminating nuclear arms.
The agreement — “new START,” as it is known — is clear evidence of an improved U.S.-Russian relationship that had fallen to such a low in recent years that some worried about a second Cold War, with disputes over U.S. missile defense plans, Moscow’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and NATO expansion to Russia’s doorstep. Under Obama, Russian cooperation on key priorities, from helping to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran to opening supply routes for the U.S. military into Afghanistan and agreeing to new arms reductions, has increased — though not by a huge amount.
Because of arcane warhead-counting rules involving delivery vehicles, the real reductions under the agreement could be far less than the advertised numbers. Regardless, the allowed stockpiles still leave plenty for global annihilation. There is also some opposition in both countries to the required legislative ratification.
And, proof of continuing bilateral distrust, the process of achieving it was far more difficult than the Obama administration expected when the negotiations were inaugurated last April by Obama and Medvedev. Instead of an easy lift to be completed by December, when its predecessor, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, expired, intense wrangling extended the talks by more than three months. Complications arose from Russian testing of Obama, disagreements over a new verification regime and other factors.
So, going forward, further Russian concessions to the U.S. are far from guaranteed. But the hard-fought treaty is at least a foundation.
“A long journey begins with a first step. And if he didn’t have this first step, then pretty much both of those agendas (the U.S.-Russian relationship and further arms cuts) would be severely hampered,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Obama can’t get anywhere on his lofty goal of a world without any atomic arms without additional U.S.-Russian agreements, since the two sides together possess about 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has directed U.S. negotiators to begin talks on new cuts, to include for the first time short-range U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons as well as weapons held in reserve or in storage.
There is no sign the Russians are eager for what would be even trickier talks.
And analysts say that pushing on that front too soon or too aggressively could endanger ratification of the new treaty in Russia, because nuclear weapons remain much more important in Moscow’s overall military posture than they are in America’s.
A more immediate goal for Obama with Russia is winning help against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. When the U.S. and Russian presidents sit down in Prague for lengthy talks, that — not the treaty they are celebrating with the elaborate Prague Castle signing and a formal luncheon — is expected to be their main focus.
Ideally, Obama would emerge with agreement on, or at least an understanding for, language for a new, tougher round of United Nations sanctions against Tehran for its continued uranium enrichment. It’s believed that chances of coaxing China, an even more stubborn holdout on sanctions against Iran than Russia, only exist if Moscow is on board. Obama is due to see the Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington next week and would like to go in with good news.
Obama left the White House Wednesday evening for the overnight flight to Europe.
The Prague trip is sandwiched in between two other significant nuclear events that have the president focusing almost exclusively on weapons security for the better part of a week.
On Tuesday, his administration released the results of a comprehensive nuclear strategy review that called the spread of atomic weapons to rogue states or terrorists a worse threat than Cold War fears of nuclear Armageddon. Seeking to refocus an aging, too-large stockpile, he narrowed and made clearer the circumstances in which the U.S. might launch a nuclear strike, emphasizing Iran, North Korea and terrorists over former foes like Russia.
Then next week, Obama welcomes to Washington the leaders of 46 nations for a two-day summit — the largest in the U.S. since the 1940s — on locking down nuclear material that could fall into the hands of terrorists.
Heading into those meetings on the heels of the Prague trip and release of the nuclear posture review gives Obama some wind at his back. Leaders who may have started to see Obama as weak or a short-timer on the global scene are now seeing him as more successful, by the foreign policy developments as well as his domestic health care win. Evidence that Obama’s international prestige has been bolstered was read in Hu’s decision to attend the summit.
It’s all tied together: “global zero,” as the no-nukes goal is known by advocates and activists, can’t happen if Obama’s efforts to turn back nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea continue to falter, or without the cooperation of confirmed nuclear states like Pakistan and India.
It’s also lost on no one that Obama is staging the START signing in a spot with significant sentimental significance.
Prague, the choice for Obama’s seminal nuke-free world speech, is also the capital of a former Soviet satellite and now-NATO member, part of the former Czechoslovakia where the 1989 Velvet Revolution was one of the few peaceful overthrows of communism behind the Iron Curtain.
Obama is tending to one other front while in Prague. He is hosting a splashy dinner for leaders from 11 Central and Eastern European nations — the new democracies and new NATO allies who fear Russia’s muscle-flexing and worry about Washington’s focus on placating Moscow.AP