WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia formally agreed Friday to further big reductions in their strategic nuclear arsenals under a new treaty that President Barack Obama considers a key step toward his ambitious goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
The pact, which would cut the U.S. and Russian warhead stockpiles by about 30 percent, is Obama's biggest foreign policy achievement since he took office 14 months ago, and it capped a week in which Congress approved a health care overhaul, his top domestic priority.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the GOP's top arms control authority, said he looked forward to reviewing the treaty and cooperating with Democrats to schedule hearings so "we can work quickly to achieve ratification of the new treaty."
However, it was unclear whether Senate Republicans will provide enough votes to reach the two-thirds majority that's required to ratify the treaty because of their concerns over how it treats U.S. missile defenses and the searing partisan bitterness enflamed by the health care battle.
The panel's chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, called on members to put aside the partisan rancor ignited by the health care battle, saying, "This is a moment for statesmanship."
Obama called the treaty "the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades." He said in a televised address that it showed both countries' determination to reverse the spread of nuclear arms and prevent them from falling into terrorists' hands, while underscoring his commitment to forging stronger ties with Moscow.
The Kremlin called it a "tremendous" result.
"Though the negotiation process was not always easy, the negotiators' constructive mindset made it possible to achieve a tremendous result in a short time and produce a document ready for signature," a Kremlin statement said.
Obama, flanked by his secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, announced the accord after a final telephone call earlier in the morning with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The presidents will sign the accord in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, on April 8, the first anniversary of a major address that Obama made there outlining his strategy to reduce and eventually eliminate the world's nuclear arsenals.
To advance that plan, Obama will host more than 40 nations at a two-day summit on securing nuclear materials vulnerable to theft in mid-April in Washington. Later this spring, the United States will participate in a U.N. conference on strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international system designed to contain the spread of nuclear weapons.
Obama also has pledged to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, a policy he's expected to detail next month in an overdue strategy paper known as the Nuclear Posture Review. The administration plans further negotiations with Russia on cutting nuclear weapons beyond the limits set in the new treaty.
The 10-year accord would limit the sides, within seven years, to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each. This is roughly 30 percent fewer than are allowed under the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which restricts each side to deploying no more than 2,200 strategic warheads by Dec. 31, 2013.
Under the new treaty, each side could deploy its strategic warheads on no more than 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles — based on land and in submarines — and long-range bombers. They'd be allowed to keep another 100 such "delivery vehicles" in reserve.
The warheads could be loaded on delivery systems in any combination that each side decides, a major change from previous accords that set "sub-limits" on how many strategic warheads could be deployed on different kinds of missiles and bombers.
The United States currently has about 2,100 strategic warheads deployed on an estimated 900 delivery systems, and Russia maintains an estimated 2,200 warheads on some 600 to 700 delivery vehicles.
The accord will allow the United States to replace nuclear warheads with conventional warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles under a Pentagon program designed to allow rapid strikes on targets anywhere in the world.
The new treaty also restores a system of on-site inspections, data exchanges and other technical means by which each side can detect cheating by the other, replacing a similar though more complex and extensive monitoring scheme set up by the 1991 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, or START, which expired in December.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that nothing in the accord would restrict the deployment of U.S. missile defenses, a limited version of which the Obama administration plans to deploy in Romania over Russian objections to protect Europe against medium-range missiles from Iran.
"We will continue to look for ways to engage with Russia on missile defense in a way that is mutually beneficial and protective of our country's security," she said.
Seeking to inject levity into the occasion, Clinton joked that Obama had promised to send his fiery-tempered chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to Moscow to help Medvedev win approval of the pact by the parliament "and we all immediately endorsed the offer."
In a sign of Russia's persisting discomfort, however, over what it sees as a threat to its strategic forces, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted in a statement that the new pact "gives each party the right" to halt its warhead cuts if it thinks the other is gaining an advantage through missile defenses.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., expressed concern in a March 15 letter to Obama that the treaty would constrain strategic U.S. missile defenses.
"It is highly unlikely that the Senate would ratify a treaty that includes such linkage, including a treaty that includes unilateral declarations that the Russian Federation could use as leverage against you or your successors when U.S. missile defense decisions are made," they wrote.
They also demanded that the administration submit to the Senate along with the treaty a 10-year plan outlining a "sustained commitment" in additional funding for modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons facilities and ensuring that aging U.S. weapons are safe and operate as designed two decades into a moratorium on underground testing.
Obama has proposed increasing spending on U.S. nuclear weapons programs by some $5 billion over five years, but McConnell and Kyl said that the plan "does not contain sufficient funding."
The new agreement was hailed by arms control advocates, including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, a Democrat, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, both Republicans, and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who have been leading an international campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
"We hope that after careful and expeditious review that both the United States Senate and the Russian Federal Assembly will be able to ratify the treaty. We also urge the two governments to begin planning now for even more substantial reductions, including tactical nuclear weapons," they said in a statement.
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