Obama seeks biggest bilateral nuke cut with Russia in decades – Russian officials show signs of agreement

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Publish date: February 4, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

President Barack Obama is seeking the most ambitious arms reductions talks with Russia in a generation, and will convene talks with Moscow to slash Russian and US weapons stockpiles by 80 percent, leaving each country with 1,000 nuclear warheads, administration officials said Wednesday in private interviews.

The talks are expected “in the near future,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood confirmed, according to transcripts of his Wednesday briefing to the press.

"We welcome the statements from the new Obama administration that they are ready to enter into talks and complete within a year, in this very confined time frame, the signing of a new Russian-US treaty on the limitation of strategic attack weapons," said Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, according to Russian news wires. "We are also ready for this, undoubtedly."

Russian military brass agreed.

"If the American administration really intends to radically cut Russia’s and the US’s strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,000 warheads, this would undeniably be a step that could promote real nuclear disarmament," said  Colonel General  Viktor Yesin, former head of Russia’s strategic rocket forces, in the Times of London.

The news shows that the Obama administration is heeding a recent report released in January by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that urged the new president to spend more money on weapons reduction.

The Carnegie report said that the tens of billions of dollars that Washington spends on weaponry and missile defence systems would be better allocated to under-funded threat reduction efforts, diplomacy, science, technology and the environment, which have proven far more effective than the economically corrosive loggerheads at which Washington and Moscow found themselves at for five decades.

Currently, the United States spends some $1 billion on combined Pentagon and Energy Department efforts to tackle the problem of old Cold Ward nuclear weaponry in Russia, a figure that has been steadily dropping since the beginning of the Bush administration, when such expenditures stood at about $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion. 

The United States spent some $52 billion in unclassified nuclear weapon-related expenses in 2008 – almost $30 million of which was spent on nuclear forces and operational support. This money should be diverted into more aggressive non-proliferation activities, the Carnegie report said.

Slashing Russia and America’s nuclear arsenals would certainly represent redirection of this funding.

“This initiative (by the Obama Administration) if it bears out, has the possibility of putting Cooperative Threat Reductions  (CTR) back on track,” said an official with the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which oversees policy in CTR, or Nunn-Lugar initiatives, so named for Senator’s Richard Lugar and former Sam Nunn who began the initiative in 1992.

Seeking to cut each country’s arsenal to 1,000 warheads each, Obama’s leverage might be to reconsider the Bush Administration’s plan for a US missile defence shield slated for Poland and the Czech Republic, administration officials said, confirming a report that appeared in the Times of London. 

The dogged pursuit of this missile shield – vociferously opposed by Moscow – was justified by George Bush as a defence again a nuclear launch from a “rogue nation” like Iran.

On the campaign trail, Obama said he thought money would be better spent pursuing non-proliferation efforts than on “unproven technology.”

The dramatic new treaty, administration officials say, is in the offing and would revisit the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expires in December.

The START-1 treaty places a limit of 6,000 strategic or long-range nuclear warheads on each side, and limits the number of delivery vehicles, such as bombers, land-based and submarine-based missiles, to 1,600 each.

Russian officials said in interviews on Wednesday they had been frustrated by Bush’s reluctance to revisit the START treaty, and in fact had planned to countermand the proposed missile shield by building more missiles.

“We have been planning for Cold War scenarios again,” said a Russian Defense Ministry official.

Administration officials, who spoke privately as they are not authorised to speak with the press, told Bellona Web Wednesday that Obama “will likely establish” a non-proliferation office in the White House to oversee the talks. Gary Samore, a Clinton era non-proliferation negotiator, is widely tipped to head the office.

Samore’s office could not be reached for comment.

The talks will be the responsibility of Hillary Clinton’s State Department, though a spokesman for State said they are similarly keeping the developments under wraps “until everything is finalised.” 

Obama has pledged to put nuclear weapons reduction at the heart of his presidency and his first move will be to reopen talks with Moscow to replace the 1991 US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start), which expires on December 6,th 2009. Under that pact, the two countries have cut their respective stockpiles from roughly 10,000 to 5,000.

“We are going to re-engage Russia in a more traditional, legally binding arms reduction process,” an official from the Administration told The Times of London. “We are prepared to engage in a broader dialogue with the Russians over issues of concern to them. Nobody would be surprised if the number reduced to the 1,000 mark for the post-Start treaty.”

Obama himself has been an active participant in verification trips to Russia with CTR officials, once being detained by Russian authorities with other members of the delegation, including Senator Richard Lugar, after they inspected a nuclear weapons destruction site outside the Siberian city of Perm.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Pentagon agency that implements CTR policy has, on a shoe string budget, deactivated more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, more than 2000 Ballistic missiles and long range cruise missiles, and destroyed some 1000 missile launchers.

In 2008 alone, some 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles were destroyed under the aegis of the START treaty, as well as 12 mobile missile launchers, according to a statement by Russia’s Strategic Military Forces, RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned news wire reported.