Obama heads to Prague to sign arms deal

US-Russian treaty to shrink strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 over 7 years.

Medvedev Klaus 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Medvedev Klaus 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
US President Barack Obama's vision of a world without nuclear arms moves closer to reality on Thursday when he and President Dmitry Medvedev sign a pivotal treaty aimed at sharply paring US and Russian arsenals while working to repair soured relations.
Obama has not been able to deliver on all of the nuclear aspirations he outlined in Prague just a year ago — visions on disarmament that helped earn him the Nobel Peace Prize. Back then, a landmark speech to an enthusiastic crowd gathered in a Prague square included a promise to quickly seek ratification of a comprehensive nuclear test ban.
That goal remains unfulfilled. But on Thursday, the Czech capital will serve as the venue of a pledge achieved.
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At noon in the Spanish Hall — a lavish Renaissance chamber within the Czech's capital's ornate presidential castle complex — the US and Russian presidents will sign the "New START" treaty. With that, they will commit their nations to slash the number of strategic nuclear warheads by one-third and more than halve the number of missiles, submarines and bombers carrying them, pending ratification by their legislatures.
The new treaty will shrink those warheads to 1,550 over seven years. That still allows for mutual destruction several times over. But it will send a strong signal that Russia and the US, which between them own more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, are serious about disarmament.
And it opens the way for further cuts. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that Obama has instructed his national security team to pursue another round of arms reduction talks with Russia, to follow up on the replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty being signed Thursday.
The aim would be to conduct wider talks to include for the first time short-range US and Russian nuclear weapons as well as weapons held in reserve or in storage.
Beyond deeply reducing nuclear arsenals, the US sees "New START" as a key part of efforts to "reset" ties with Russia, which had become badly strained under the Bush administration and engage Moscow more in dealing with global challenges. Among these is Iran's defiance of U.N. Security Council demands that it curb its nuclear program to ease fears it seeks to make nuclear arms.
The new pact is only part of the Obama administration's new nuclear strategy. It will be signed only days after the White House announced a fundamental shift that calls the spread of atomic weapons to terrorists or rogue states — nations, like North Korea or Iran that do not abide by nonproliferation rules — a worse menace than the Cold War threat of mutual destruction.
"For the first time, preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America's nuclear agenda," Obama said Tuesday in detailing key components of an in-depth nuclear strategy review.
While the formal occasion is signing the treaty, Obama is expected to use the occasion to push for Russian support for new U.N. sanctions to punish Iran's refusal to give up uranium enrichment. Chances of enlisting China, an even more stubborn opponent of Iran sanctions than Moscow, improve if the Kremlin is on board.
Other US nuclear initiatives will follow the Prague signing, with the White House planning to lead calls for disarmament in May at the United Nations during an international conference on strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Before that, government leaders from more than 40 countries will gather in Washington next week to discuss boosting defenses against terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.
The deep cuts in warheads and delivery systems and a legally binding system to ensure against cheating, makes "New START" the most significant nuclear arms treaty in a generation, and Medvedev, in comments published before the signing lauded it as "an important step" in disarmament and arms control efforts.
Some Russian arms control analysts say Russia badly needed the deal to ease the burden of replacing a large number of Soviet-built missiles which need to be decommissioned for age. "This treaty is in Russia's best interests," said Sergei Rogov, the head of the USA and Canada Institute, an influential think tank that advises the Kremlin on foreign policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the deal could "open new possibilities for developing the US-Russian partnership" — but warned Moscow reserves the right to withdraw if the planned US missile defense system grows into a threat.
Russia has welcomed Obama's decision to scrap the previous administration's plans for missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic while voicing concern about the prospects of a revamped US project, including a planned facility in Romania.
Lavrov said that the site in Romania poses no immediate threat, but added that Russia will closely watch further US missile deployments and could opt out of the new treaty if it sees that US missile interceptors acquire a capability to intercept Russia's strategic missiles.
Russia shares Obama's goal of a nuclear-free world, but other nations must join the disarmament process, he said.
Moscow also warned that the US plans to fit some of its nuclear-tipped missiles with conventional warheads could be an obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
Lavrov argued that Russia views such weapons as just as destabilizing as nukes.
Russiahasn't tried to follow the US example partly because most of itsmissiles lack precision for hitting pinpoint targets with conventionalexplosives. Its conventional military forces has steadily degraded,prompting the military to rely increasingly on nuclear weapons.
Whilethe docile Russian parliament will do the Kremlin's bidding on thetreaty, the ratification process in the US Senate could be troublesome.Fearing potential trouble, Moscow has said that Russian lawmakers willsynchronize their moves to ratify the deal with the US legislators.
Sensitiveto East European concerns, Obama is tending to other business while inPrague — hosting a dinner for leaders from 11 Central and EasternEuropean nations formerly in or near Moscow's orbit, who worry aboutthe Kremlin's post-communist push for influence.