US, Russia will try to reduce nukes

April 1, 2009 10:52:38 AM PDT
The United States and Russia, striving to ease strained relations, announced jointly Wednesday that they'll try to put a new nuclear arms reduction deal in place before the existing treaty expires in December. In advance of their first sit down, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a joint statement saying the "era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over." They pledged to work together to limit the world's two largest nuclear arsenals, and the White House also announced that Obama was accepting Medvedev's invitation to visit Moscow this summer.

"Over the last several years, the relationship between our two countries has been allowed to drift," Obama told reporters after his meeting with Medvedev. "What I believe we've begun today is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest."

Striking a similar tone with the U.S. president at his side, the Russian president said: "I am more optimistic of the successful development of our relations."

As for nuclear arms control, the two said in a joint statement that "we are instructing our negotiators to start talks immediately on this new treaty and to report on results achieved in working out the new agreement by July."

Their newly-professed commitment to reinvigorate arms-control initiatives that have lain dormant for years caused a stir at the London site of a G-20 summit that seemed otherwise transfixed on a deepening worldwide recession.

Obama trumpeted the new arms undertaking as representing "great progress" between Moscow and Washington on areas where the two have mutual interests, although he also said he wouldn't try to minimize differences.

"What we're seeing today is the beginning of new progress in U.S.-Russian relations," he said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that the two countries have not settled on a new cap for nuclear arms. In the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, they committed to limiting their nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200. But that treaty is considered far weaker than the soon-to-expire START (strategic arms limitation) 1991 pact.

The session between the two presidents was not just a get-to-know-you meeting, said senior Obama administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe the private discussions. Both sides worked for weeks ahead of time to develop two joint statements.

Obama and his aides were particularly pleased at what they saw as small progress on Russia's position on Iran, with Moscow coming closer to agreeing that Tehran could be pursuing nuclear weapons and thus pose a threat, and on agreement about the threat from extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But the talks were not all about agreement. Last August's devastating war between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia came up, with Obama saying directly that Georgia's pro-Moscow separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would never be recognized as independent by the United States, the officials said.

Obama and Medvedev made it clear that progress on a new arms-reduction deal must be made by the time of the U.S. president's planned visit to Moscow in July, the officials said. Both sides recognize that negotiating a new treaty will be difficult, with many thorny issues to resolve.

Obama's administration has reached out to Russia during its first two months in power, trying to repair a rift that emerged over the United States' plan to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe that Moscow vehemently opposes. Obama called a new arms control treaty push "a good place to start" in rebuilding a partnership with Russia.

Answering questions at a news conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama lamented tensions and "drift" between Moscow and Washington in recent years. He told reporters that "I have no interest in papering those over," but also said the two countries share many interests, including reducing the threat of terrorism and stabilizing the world economy.

"I think people on both sides of the Atlantic understand that as much as the constant cloud - the threat of nuclear warfare - has receded since the Cold War, that the presence of these deadly weapons, their proliferation, the possibility of them finding their way into the hands of terrorists continues to be the gravest threat to humanity," Obama said. "What better project to start off than seeing if we can make progress on that front."

The president said his country wants to "press the reset button," a phrase that has been used by other top members of his administration - initially by Vice President Joe Biden - in addressing US-Russian relations.

The Kremlin has made clear it believes it is up to Washington to open the effort with concessions.

U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated in recent years to lowest point since the early 1980s. And Obama has indicated less enthusiasm than predecessor George W. Bush for the proposed U.S. missile defense system based in Eastern Europe.

It's an idea whose time shouldn't come, Russia has argued.

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