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For Obama and Medvedev, Bombs Away

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
April 1, 2009
Guardian UK

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After their first meeting Wednesday in London, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev released a joint statement committing the two countries to a three-month goal of negotiating a new, legally-binding arms control treaty, with a long-term goal of "achieving a nuclear free world".

However, only the concrete facts as negotiated by both sides, and then as ratified by the State Duma and the US Senate, will determine whether this joint statement is more than a rhetorical press release. Nevertheless, in the initial impression, it is important for three reasons.

First, it reaffirms the US-Russian nuclear weapons reduction partnership participated in to various degrees, for the last 40 years. Over the course of that partnership, the two countries that maintain 95% of the world's bombs have decreased their combined total from a high of over 60,000 nuclear weapons in 1986 (pdf), to around 19,000 today. The United States has 5,200 nuclear warheads (pdf), 2,700 of which are operational. Russia 14,000 nuclear warheads, 5,200 operational.

The existing joint nuclear reduction agreement - the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (Sort) - committed Moscow and Washington to cutting their "operationally deployed strategic warheads" to 2,200 each. Nevertheless, it fell short of past agreements, as it had no effect on warheads in reserve stockpiles or under repair, no roadmap beyond 31 December 2012 - remarkably the date that compliance was required and the treaty itself expired, and no verification procedures. The Obama-Medvedev joint statement contains pro-verification language consistent with US-Russian arms control agreements predating the last administration: "We agreed to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process."

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