Russian officials said in November mainly in Russian media that they had notified Washington the 20-year-old Nunn-Lugar program, which disposed of thousands of Soviet-era warheads, missiles, and ballistic missile submarines would not be extended when it expires in May.
The unilateral decision by Moscow to dump the program was seen as the latest challenge by Russia to the to the touted “reset” of relations Obama attempted to engineer with Msocow early in his first term, ties that are now strained under the returning President Vladimir Putin, and a Kremlin spurred wave of suspicion of western influence.
But Obama last week told an arms control symposium at the National War College that he was ready to talk to Russia about a new version of the 20-year pact, as he honored its founders, Republican Senator Richard Lugar and former Democratic senator Sam Nunn.
“Russia has said that our current agreement hasn’t kept pace with the changing relationship between our countries,” Obama said at the event in Washington in remarks carried by US news services.
“To which we say, let’s update it. Let’s work with Russia as an equal partner. Let’s continue the work that’s so important to the security of both our countries. And I’m optimistic that we can.”
Obama’s remarks marked his first on the topic since the diplomatic flap began.
Nils Bohmer, Bellona’s general manager and nuclear physicist, greeted Obama’s comments warmly, saying “this is a good step from the US President.”
“Nunn Lugar has been vital for the clean up of weapons of mass destruction in Russia and the former Soviet states, and lets hope the program continues for another 20 years,” said Bohmer, adding that ”there are still enormous amounts of fissile materials in Russia that need safeguarding.”
Obama advocated for a world without nuclear weapons when he served in the US Senate, but he failed to achieve significant progress during his first term in the White House. His comments last week reassured the arms control community that he remains committed to the objective, even though he did not provide a road map or new set of policy goals for his second term.
US diplomats began talks with Russia about renewing the US-financed program in July, but Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow wanted to end it.
The Russian Foreign Ministry when reached by telephone on Friday by Bellona said it had no comment on Obama’s remarks.
Lugar, who is leaving the Senate after losing a Republican primary challenge, traveled to Russia in August to talk about extending the deal.
The Nunn-Lugar plan was created in 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union amid worries over the fate of its vast arsenal of nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons.
The program began as an effort to safeguard materials by improving security at nuclear complexes and evolved to decommissioning work – becoming, at an average annual cost of $500 million, one of the Pentagon’s cheapest and most effective self defense programs. It is largely seen as the defining international disarmament agreement with Russia, which led numerous other countries to invest funding and join the effort.
Ryabkov suggested in several less than clear statements in the Russian media in November that Moscow felt constrained by the deal because it gave Washington access to sensitive information about its weapons .
Rybakov also said that Russia did not need western funding to secure or dismantle its stocks of weaponry, and Russia was tired of being viewed as a charity case rather than an equal partner with other nations.
The decision not to renew the Nunn-Lugar program came weeks after the Kremlin asked a key US democracy development organization to leave Moscow in the latest deterioration in Moscow-Washington relations under Putin, as well as one of a series of moves the Putin administration has made to quash Russian civil society.
USAID was ordered out of the country over accusations it supported opposition leaders who helped organize a wave of demonstrations against Putin. Putin has since sought to distance Russia from foreign influence, passing a raft of laws redefining treason and forcing NGOs in Russia that receive foreign funding to register themselves as “foreign agents.”
Russia has also initiated crackdowns on internet pages it finds objectionable, and initiated bills in the Duma that would punish offenses against religious sensibilities.
Lugar says his program has deactivated 7,610 strategic nuclear warheads, destroyed 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 906 nuclear air-to-surface missiles along with 684 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, among other stockpiles that have been eliminated.