This promise has been a major priority for President Barack Obama, and after more than a year of intense negotiations -- including 14 calls or personal meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- Obama announced on March 26, 2010, that an agreement had finally been reached.
But it hasn't gone as smoothly as Obama hoped. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama vowed to "reset" the U.S. relationship with Russia, and in an April meeting with Medvedev the two promised to hammer out an extension to 1991's START I (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) before it expired in December 2009.
That December deadline came and went without an agreement.
When Obama announced on March 26, 2010, that the two countries had reached an agreement to further reduce and limit nuclear arms in a historic "new START treaty," Obama called it "one of my administration"s top national security priorities -- a pivotal new arms control agreement." Obama said he and Medvedev would meet in Prague, the Czech Republic, on April 8, to sign it.
"Broadly speaking, the new START treaty makes progress in several areas," Obama said. "It cuts -- by about a third -- the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy. It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies."
Here are the particulars, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House: over the next 10 years, the United States and Russia would reduce their number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550. That's 74 percent lower than the limit of the 1991 START Treaty and 30 percent lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty, the release notes.
In addition, the countries agreed to cut to 800 the combined limit of deployed and nondeployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. It also includes a separate limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
The fact that it took four months past the December 2009 deadline to resolve "suggests it was much harder than they thought," said Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Clearly there was strong disagreement on a number of issues."
A March 26, 2010, New York Times story by Peter Baker details many of those disagreements.
"It is a story with twists and turns that included 10 rounds of talks by full-time negotiators in Geneva but ultimately kept coming around to intense personal negotiations between Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev, who met or talked by telephone 14 times to hash through disputes," the story states.
Among the hangups spelled out in the New York Times story were disagreements over details of the verification program and the sharing of missile data known as telemetry.
On the specific issue of verification and openness, the fact sheet states, "Measures under the Treaty include on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the Treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for treaty monitoring." According to the New York Times, the agreement calls for 18 inspections a year, up from 10 originally proposed by the Russians. In addition, the White House stated, "To increase confidence and transparency, the Treaty also provides for the exchange of telemetry."
While the agreement is a significant milestone, it is not a done deal. Even after it is signed by Obama and Medvedev on April 8, 2010, it would still need to be approved by the U.S. Senate and the Russian legislature before it can enter into force. In the Senate, it would need to be ratified by two-thirds of the members, 67 votes, not an easy task these days.
Zenko also warns that despite the outline provided by the White House, "Until we see the 200-page technical annex, it's hard to say what exactly it is and what it is not."
The announced agreement is a "modest, necessary step," Zenko said. But future arms reduction treaties will only get tougher as the number of weapons dips into the hundreds rather than thousands, and the two countries get closer to parity with other countries like China, France and the United Kingdom. At that point, he said, it will require the United States and Russia to engage those countries in future arms reduction treaties.
Still, the agreement is progress. We'll wait until the Senate weighs in on this treaty before making a final determination on the status of Obama's promise. We're keeping this one at In the Works.