The US president, Barack Obama, and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian
leader, today signed an arms treaty that will slash their respective
nuclear arsenals by a third.
The two men shook hands to applause
after signing what Obama called a historic agreement in the opulent
setting of Prague castle in the Czech Republic. Obama said the new agreement made the US and the world more secure and helped stopped the drift in US-Russia relations.
"Together we've stopped that drift," Obama said, adding that the agreement was a "milestone for US-Russia relations".
acknowledged, however, that the new agreement was "just one step on a
longer journey" and said it has set the stage for further cuts. There
was also a stern message for Iran as Obama said the world would not
tolerate actions from countries that flouted the nuclear
non-proliferation treaty and threatened collective security. Medvedev
echoed Obama's concerns, saying that the world could not turn a blind
eye to Iran, which he said had not responded to "many constructive
proposals". He hinted that Russia would be open to further sanctions
The new treaty will cut American and
Russian strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 over seven years, about a
third less than the 2,200 currently allowed.
Obama returned to Prague one year after he outlined his vision before an enthusiastic crowd for a world without nuclear weapons.
The speech helped him win the Nobel peace prize, but Obama has
acknowledged that eliminating nuclear weapons is unlikely to be
achieved during his lifetime.
The agreement to reduce nuclear
warheads by a third succeeds the 1991 strategic arms reduction treaty
(Start), which expired in December. It will have to be ratified by the
US Senate - where conservative Republicans can be expected to give it a
rough ride - and the Russian parliament.
In addition to the
warhead limit, the US and Russia must cut their total land, sea and
air-based launchers to 800 each, and no more than 700 actually deployed
within seven years. While that will leave plenty of nuclear weapons to
destroy the world several times over, it marks a big drop from the
total of 19,000 strategic warheads both sides deployed during the cold
Obama wants to move for even deeper cuts but faces Russian
reluctance because of American plans to build a missile defence system
in Europe to counter a possible Iranian threat. Russia argues that
antiballistic missile systems could neutralise its smaller arsenal.
Even as Obama pushes for deep cuts in nuclear weapons, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon is developing a weapon
to plug the gap left by nuclear warheads: missiles armed with
conventional warheads that could strike anywhere in the world in less
than an hour. US military officials say the intercontinental ballistic
missiles, known as prompt global strike weapons, are a necessary new
form of deterrence against terrorist networks.
Obama will have to
balance his desire for deep cuts against the more immediate goal of
keeping Russia on side to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and its
suspected nuclear weapons programme. The US is seeking another round of
sanctions against Tehran and Obama is also courting support from China,
which recently signalled its willingness to adopt a tougher line towards Iran.
Obama's trip to Prague is part of an intensive round of nuclear diplomacy. On Tuesday, the US released the results of a comprehensive nuclear strategy review
in which the US committed itself for the first time not to use nuclear
weapons against non-nuclear states provided that they are party to the
nuclear non-proliferation treaty and in compliance with their nuclear
non-proliferation obligations - a caveat that excludes North Korea and
Next week, Obama welcomes to Washington the leaders of 46
countries, including the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, for a summit
meeting on nuclear security.