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UPDATED: July 20, 2009 NO. 29 JULY 23, 2009
Shared Responsibility
Russia and the United States reach a nuclear arms reduction agreement, but strategic differences remain


COMMON GROUND: Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev head to a press conference after their talks in Moscow on July 6 (LU JINBO) 

July 6 to 8 was an important three days for U.S.-Russia relations, during which U.S. President Barack Obama visited Russia for the first time. This visit continued Obama's London talks in April with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which the two countries agreed to "reopen" strategic arms talks and work out a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which will expire on December 5. The U.S.-Russia summit this time covered various topics, including climate change, the global financial crisis, missile defense, the Iranian nuclear issue and the situation in Afghanistan. This visit served as a start to break the deadlock over nuclear weapons reduction, with Russia and the United States both committing to reduce their strategic warheads to a range of 1,500 to 1,675.

The two presidents reached an agreement on the first stage of a new strategic arms reduction treaty. The United States and Russia signed joint statements on strategic arms reduction during Obama's first visit to Russia, and the two sides also inked an agreement that allows 4,500 flights a year carrying U.S. troops and weapons to Afghanistan to cross Russian territory without transit charges.

The new treaty, which will be signed in Moscow toward the end of the year, is a concrete move by the Obama administration to reduce nuclear weapons around the world. The United States also considers reducing nuclear arms together with Russia to be a key step in solving the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues. The treaty will be part of the Obama administration's nuclear non-proliferation program to eliminate nuclear arms globally. While both sides seemed at ease during the meeting, they remained at odds on many issues.

Strategic differences

Russia made no compromise on U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense and radar system in Central Europe during the Obama visit. Medvedev urged Washington to give up its missile defense system in Eastern Europe and not to ally with Georgia and Ukraine, while Obama called for tougher sanctions on Iran, which is an economic ally of Russia. Neither side made concessions on these issues, indicating disputes over the planned U.S. regional missile defense system have not yet been settled. However, Obama agreed to solve the missile defense issue under the framework of a series of arms reduction talks. The United States once again stressed that the sole aim of the missile defense system is to curb the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran and North Korea, not Russia.

Some foreign observers say Obama made a mistake by telling the press that "Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new," suggesting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was still applying the old Cold War approach. His comment drew a quick rebuke from Russia, and he didn't have the chance to meet with Putin extensively during his visit, when Putin is actually on the same page with Medvedev when it comes to the arms reduction issue. On the other hand, the Bush administration's legacy left many unsolved problems for the Obama administration to handle, especially the "overloaded" U.S.-Russia relations in recent years. Since the end of the Cold War, there has only been a small honeymoon period in the 1990s between Washington and Moscow. By 2008, the United States had promoted three rounds of NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, during which the number of NATO member states increased from 15 to 27. Against the backdrop of NATO expansion, confrontation and cooperation coexist as the major themes of U.S.-Russia relations.

In April 2007, the United States proposed to expand its Ballistic Missile Defense System by deploying up to 10 interceptors at a site in Poland and European midcourse radar in the Czech Republic, which put Russia on high alert. The then president Vladimir Putin changed Russia's nuclear deterrence strategy to a more positive nuclear security strategy, to counter the security threats Russia faced.

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