Obama and Medvedev: nuclear arms talks on the table

The two leaders met in London Wednesday.

RIA Novosti, Vladimir Rodionov, Presidential Press Service/AP
Talking: President Barack Obama (r.) met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at Winfield House in London, Wednesday

Moscow – During the darkest days of the cold war, nothing uplifted people's moods and raised hopes for world peace like an official announcement that the two superpowers were opening negotiations to slash their arsenals of terrifying, death-dealing intercontinental nuclear weapons.

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev brought back some of that happy buzz Wednesday as they emerged, smiling, from their first meeting to inform journalists that talks for a fresh strategic arms accord are on the table, and breakthroughs on other, thornier issues might also be in the pipeline.

"We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond cold war mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries," the presidents said in a joint statement.

This comes after what Mr. Obama described as a long period of "drift" in U.S.-Russian relations, which saw some of the sharpest invective flying between Moscow and Washington since the USSR collapsed almost two decades ago (see here for a discussion of underlying US-Russian antagonisms).

The new talks would be aimed at finding a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is due to expire at the end of this year. While that accord limited each side to 6,000 warheads each -- both currently aim around 3,500 at the other – a new deal could slash the count to as few as 1,000 weapons each.

In practice, the two leaders are talking about much more than mere radical cuts in nuclear stockpiles. The Bush administration favored an ad hoc style of dealing with Moscow, which sometimes infuriated the Russians.

What Obama is pledging is a return to the old style of full-scale superpower negotiations, leading to a legally binding treaty that will be monitored closely and generate constant exchanges between the two sides for years to come. And that's music to the Kremlin's ears.

"Arms control negotiations are the only area in which Russia and the US enjoy a kind of parity, and both have big existing establishments who are suited to carrying out the verification and compliance procedures that will be needed," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "Our Russian officials love that sort of thing. They're really looking forward to it."

The two presidents, both around the same age and new in their jobs, appear to have hit it off personally. Obama told journalists that he successfully deployed his single word in Russian – spasibo, meaning thank you – while the fluent English-speaking Mr. Medvedev refreshingly broke with the old Russian apparatchik tradition of always talking through an interpreter.

"I'm still working on my Russian," Obama said. "(Medvedev's) English is much better."

But Obama did not repeat former President Bush's gaffe upon his first meeting with ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin eight years ago. "I looked the man in the eye and... I was able to get a sense of his soul," Bush famously remarked. Russian-U.S. relations plummeted to their post-cold war nadir in subsequent years.

Perhaps wisely, Obama and Medvedev left the tougher issues for another day.

Iran, missile defense, and NATO expansion will all have to be addressed. But with a full head of steam on arms control, and a wave of goodwill, all that might look much easier when Obama comes calling at the Kremlin in three months.

"We will be very glad to host President Obama, to greet him in Moscow in July," Medvedev said. "Indeed, July is the warmest time in Russia, and I believe that will be exactly the feature of the talks and relations we are going to enjoy."

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