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U.S., Russia Seek to Reduce Nuclear Warheads

Obama and Brown at London presser

LONDON -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday announced a renewed effort to cut back their stockpiles of nuclear warheads, after their first face-to-face meeting ahead of the G20 economic meetings. 

Obama, whose administration is attempting to "reset" relations with Russia, also accepted an invitation to visit Moscow in July. 

"We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries," the two leaders said in a joint statement released by the White House. Obama was also meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday. 

The U.S. and Russia announced a "comprehensive, legally binding" effort to cut the number of stockpiled nuclear warheads and warhead delivery systems under the Reagan-initiated START Treaty framework.

START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and was signed on July 31, 1991, five months before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Former President Reagan began the process in 1982. 

The treaty capped nuclear warheads at 6,000 for each nation and limited to 1,600 the number of delivery systems required to use nuclear warheads as offensive weapons. The covered delivery systems were Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched warheads, and long-range bombers. The treaty became fully implemented in 2001. It reduced warheads by 80 percent from pre-START totals. The treaty is set to expire on Dec. 5.

Obama and Medvedev pledged to negotiate a new warhead and delivery system reduction before the treaty expires. Current estimates place the number of warheads at roughly 4,100 active warheads and about 5,600 total for the U.S. and roughly 4,100 for Russia. 

The goal for both countries is to reduce stockpiles of warheads to no more than 1,500 per side. 

A joint statement said the agreement would "mutually enhance the security" of both countries and would include "verification measures." 

The new, or renewed, START talks could soften or possibly forestall movements Medvedev announced March 17 to undertake a "large scale" rearmament of Russian military might -- including nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

"This looks like a small achievement," a senior Obama official said. "But I assure you, getting the words right, ensuring this was a verifiable treaty covering warheads and delivery vehicles was very difficult and very important. This is the first big thing."

The U.S. made no commitments to have "defensive" systems covered by the new START talks. Russia has attacked U.S. plans to install ballistic missile defense systems in parts of Eastern Europe. That issue will be dealt with separately, officials said.

In addition to the START commitment, the U.S. and Russia released a declaration on future agenda items including non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and their underlying technology; Afghanistan; Iran; global trade and WTO compliance; and, importantly, democracy and the rule of law in Russia. 

The new Russian push for a global reserve currency to supplant the dollar is not part of the future agenda because, as one official said, "it came up pretty late in the preparations and we're not interested in it."

Officials said it reflected Obama's and Medvedev's realistic appraisal of the danger of diplomatic drift and intensive pre-diplomacy to make the first face-to-face encounter more than a set of cosmetically pleasing handshakes for the cameras.

"This is very comprehensive as far as the agenda is concerned," one official said. "This is not just declaratory language. This will not be a get-to-know-you meeting. It won't be just pleasantries."

The new Obama team takes the view that it was difficult for the two countries six months ago to even agree on which issues divided them and which to try to negotiate and which to set aside for a later day.

"But we have no illusions about it being easy," the official said. "This doesn't mean suddenly everything falls into line. There will still be a lot of work."

Obama and Medvedev have talked twice by phone, and their conversations laid the groundwork for the diplomacy leading up to the START moves and the bilateral agreement on future negotiating issues. The conversations were followed up by a letter from Obama to Medvedev promising serious U.S. engagement on a variety of issues. Further, Russia presented its issues agenda in a private communication delivered by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early March.

"They handed over an agenda, they engaged seriously," the official said. "We are cautiously optimistic we are off to a good start and we can, in fact, reset this relationship."