Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hold their press conference after the signing ceremony of the Joint Understanding on Strategic Arms Reduction at the Kremlin on July 6, 2009 in Moscow, Russia. (Epsilon/2009 Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hold their press conference after the signing ceremony of the Joint Understanding on Strategic Arms Reduction at the Kremlin on July 6, 2009 in Moscow, Russia. (Epsilon/2009 Getty Images)

John Ibbitson

Obama, Medvedev hit reset button on nuclear gamesmanship Add to ...

Proving that sometimes, when you press the reset button, the glitch actually goes away, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev announced a preliminary but landmark agreement to reduce their nations' remaining nuclear arsenals by up to one third.

The announcement capped a raft of accords reached Monday between the U.S. and Russian presidents aimed at rejuvenating a relationship that had deteriorated to near-Cold-War levels under George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, their predecessors.

More Related to this Story

"We resolved to reset U.S.-Russian relations so that we can co-operate more effectively in areas of common interest," Mr. Obama declared at a joint press conference in the Kremlin's rococo St. Andrew's Hall, echoing an earlier declaration by Vice-President Joe Biden that it was time to "press the reset button" in Russia-U.S. relations.

His Russian counterpart agreed. "The solution of many world problems depends on the joint will of the United States and Russia," Mr. Medvedev maintained, characterizing the day's work as "a first, but very important, step in the process of improving full-scale co-operation between our two countries."

The two leaders, who made the unfortunate decision to wear near-identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties, pledged to negotiate a final treaty by year's end to cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads on each side to between 1,500 and 1,675 from current levels, which are above 2,200.

The new agreement would follow on the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which expires in December. The two nuclear superpowers account for about 95 per cent of the planet's nuclear weapons, and will still have more than enough firepower to blow up that planet, even after the latest reductions take effect.

Russia has also agreed to permit U.S. overflights of its territory for the purpose of sending troops and weapons to the war in Afghanistan, a logistical bonus for the United States that signals Russia's willingness to meaningfully co-operate in fighting the Taliban in the region.

And the two countries have agreed to a series of joint commissions and other forums to tackle everything from missing prisoners of war to health-care issues.

More important than any agreement, perhaps, was the clear sign from both leaders that they were willing to compromise in the interests of securing those agreements, and in renewing a relationship that had dangerously deteriorated during the past half decade.

This was most evident in negotiations surrounding the volatile issue of the American ballistic-missile-defence program. The United States has deployed missile-defence instillations in Europe, saying they are intended to ward off an Iranian missile attack on its NATO allies.

The Russians fiercely oppose those installations, arguing that they are actually aimed at Russia and undermine the principle of deterrence through mutually assured destruction.

In search of a way to work around this impasse, Mr. Obama said he had ordered a review of the entire missile-defence program, and would share its results with the Russians.

Mr. Medvedev, in turn, told reporters that "nobody is saying that the ballistic-missile defence is harmful or is posing a danger."

This represents a significant concession, since that's exactly what the Russians have been saying.

Nonetheless, if all this goodwill is to come to grief, it will be over missile defence, since Russia insists it must be abandoned as part of any START II agreement, while Mr. Obama pointedly refuses to link the one to the other.

The Americans remain confident, however, that the issue can be finessed.

"I think at the end of the day - because our missile defence does not actually pose a threat to Russia's strategic forces - I think they'll be prepared to go ahead without trying to extract a price on missile defence," predicted Gary Samore, Mr. Obama's chief adviser on weapons of mass destruction and arms control, in a briefing with reporters.

Many observers believe that Russia needs an arms-control agreement more than the United States, since its nuclear deterrent is aging and the cash-strapped country can't afford another arms race.

There was distressingly little public discussion of Iran, whose nuclear ambitions the United States is determined to thwart - a goal about which Russia is much more ambivalent.

And both sides remain testy - Mr. Obama called the discussions "frank" - over last year's Russian incursion into Georgia and its support for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have broken away from Georgia.

This particular topic is likely to come up again today, when Mr. Obama meets with Mr. Putin, who is now Prime Minister and who many believe still wields the greatest power in the Byzantine world of Russian politics.

Still, relations between the two countries are a world better than they were even a few months ago. And they are based on a far firmer and more mature foundation than Mr. Bush's declaration early in his presidency that he had looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and determined he could be trusted.

Treaties and verification regimes are infinitely preferable to soulful exchanges among leaders of great powers.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories