A New Start for US-Russian Relations

The US and Russian presidents released in London today a remarkable statement that breaks from the stale mumbo jumbo of the past and details an ambitious work plan for a new relationship between the two countries--starting with the goal of a nuclear-free world.

Compare this statement to the 2006 Bush-Putin statement. The latter is almost claustrophobic in its fixation on minor details and export control restraints. Obama and Medvedev pound the reset button, establishing "a substantive agenda for Russian and the United States" and promising, "now it is time to get down to business and translate our warm words into actual achievements."

First and very interesting is the frame of their nuclear discussion. Rather than beginning, as did almost all Bush-era statements, with warnings of the threat of new nations getting nuclear arms, its focus is on their own arsenals and their own obligations.

Upfront is a significant commitment to achieving a nuclear free world, consistent with Obama's repeated statements. They restore arms control and conflict resolution to central policy roles.

They have committed to a new treaty (to replace the expiring START agreement) by the end of the year and want a report from their negotiators by July. These guys are not fooling around. There is no mention of numbers, but that is reasonable. They will have to talk before committing to a specific number lower than the existing 2002 SORT agreement of 1700-2200 strategic deployed warheads.

The number of 1500 deployed strategic warheads has been widely mentioned. But many believe this would be a way station on the way to the next treaty that would bring in all nuclear weapons, deployed and non-deployed, strategic and tactical, and cut down to 500 to 1000 total warheads for each nation.

Nuclear Numbers

Just to keep all this is perspective, here is the best estimate of total US and Russian nuclear weapons today. The existing treaties just cover the long-range warheads on missiles, bombers and submarines. A future treaty could cover all weapons and mandate their verified dismantlement, not just storage.

US Strategic Deployed: 2200 Non-strategic: 500 Reserve: 2500 Stored awaiting dismantlement: 4200 TOTAL: 9400

Russia Strategic Deployed: ~2800 Non-strategic: ~2050 Reserve/Stored: ~8150 TOTAL: ~13000

Getting Real on Missile Defense

Obaman and Medvedev clearly want to work out a compromise on anti-missile systems in Europe. Obama recognizes that the weapons Bush was rushing to deploy do not really work and Medvedev seems to acknowledge that they there are ways to deploy systems that would not threaten Russia. This is the beginning of a cooperative approach based, as they say, "on joint threat assessments of missile challenges and threats."

Some in the Obama administration seem to want to keep playing games with this. Helene Cooper reports in The New York Times, that some do not want the administration "to give up on the missile shield until it gets something from Russia in return [like] more cooperation...on Iran." Obama should reject such juvenile posturing. The Bush plan would deploy weapons that do not work against a threat that does not exist with money we do not have. There is no shield; there is no trade. The sooner we start working on cooperative efforts to address the real threats from Iran, the better.

Test Ban

Finally, there is some real news on efforts to stop all global tests of nuclear weapons. Both nations in the statement pledge to bring the the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty into force. Russia has ratified it, Bush refused to, Obama now promises to make it so.

This was a Obama pledge during the campaign. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her January 13 confirmation hearing promised to seek Senate ratification of the test ban, but this may be the first public commitment by Obama to do so since becoming president. This could be the beginning of a serious administration effort, though he doesn't explicitly promise to do so this year.

More to come when President Obama speaks this Sunday in Prague in what is billed as a major speech on nuclear policy. Stay tuned.