WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sealed an agreement on Friday on a landmark treaty to slash their nuclear arsenals by a third and will sign it on April 8 in Prague.
After months of deadlock, a breakthrough deal on a replacement for the Cold War-era START pact marked Obama’s most significant foreign policy achievement since taking office and also boosts his effort to “reset” ties with Moscow.
Obama and Medvedev put the finishing touches on the historic accord during a phone call, committing the world’s biggest nuclear weapons powers to deep cuts.
“I’m pleased to announce that after a year of intense negotiations, the United States and Russia have agreed to the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades,” Obama told reporters.
In Moscow, Medvedev hailed the agreement — which still must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and in Russia — as reflecting the “balance of the interests of both countries.”
The 10-year agreement would replace a 1991 pact that expired in December. It calls for each side to reduce stockpiles of their most dangerous weapons — those already deployed — to 1,550 from the 2,200 now allowed and also cut their numbers of launchers in half, the White House said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the agreement would send a message to Iran and North Korea, both locked in nuclear standoffs with the West, of a commitment to prevent nuclear proliferation.
“With this agreement, the United States and Russia — the two largest nuclear powers in the world — also send a clear signal that we intend to lead,” Obama said. “By upholding our own commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities,” he said.
The new treaty adds another chapter in a quarter century of efforts to make the world a safer place by reducing nuclear arsenals, after a 1986 summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev laid the groundwork.
Obama and Medvedev plan to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty on April 8 in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, a former Soviet satellite now in NATO. That April date is near the anniversary of Obama’s speech in Prague offering his vision for eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and will help build momentum for a nuclear security summit he will host in Washington on April 12-14.
U.S. officials said the new treaty will not place restrictions on planned U.S. missile defense systems based in Europe, which had been a major sticking point in negotiations because of Russia’s opposition to such plans. “Missile defense is not constrained by this treaty,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
But the Kremlin said arms reduction treaty would include a legally binding link between strategic offensive and defensive nuclear weapons. It was not immediately clear whether the U.S. administration shared that interpretation.
Obama said the new treaty would help Washington and Moscow put behind them the “darkest days of the Cold War.” “It cuts, by about a third, the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy,” Obama said. “It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. “And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies.”
The new pact could strengthen Obama politically, building on the domestic political victory he scored this week when he signed sweeping healthcare reform into law.
Obama still faces a fight to get a two-thirds majority for Senate ratification of the treaty at a time of bipartisan rancor after the bitter fight over healthcare and other parts of his domestic agenda. Republicans have criticized his national security policies.
The final deal also signaled improved relations with Russia, which Obama needs onboard for any further international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
It showed that Moscow and Washington can find a way to work together despite differences over a host of issues from Georgia to missile defense in Europe.