On April 8, 2010, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met in Prague to sign a new treaty: the New START. It will reduce the number of nuclear arms held by each country by more than 25 percent over the next seven years. The United States currently possesses 2000 nuclear weapons in its arsenal and Russia holds upwards of 2500. The treaty will limit the number each country may have to 1550.

The settlement also aims to reduce the number of delivery mechanisms for nuclear missiles. It will limit the number of intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and heavy bombers to 800, down from the current limit of 1600, and limit the number of nuclear-armed missiles and submarine launched missiles to 700. Additionally, it will impose a new inspection system to insure each country’s adherence. The treaty is designed to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 (START), which expired on December 5, 2009, and to build upon the Moscow Treaty signed by former President George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2002.

The agreement marks one of the most significant reductions in nuclear arms in decades and forwards one of President Obama’s central foreign policy goals: the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide (outlined at a United Nations summit on nuclear proliferation in September 2009). President Obama has demonstrated renewed focus on his goal of deterring nuclear proliferation. The treaty signing is scheduled days after his announcement that the United States will place new limits on the conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons. The new limits would prohibit the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, or in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Both the treaty and the recent announcement signify a shift in US nuclear policy that may increase its credibility in its efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. In the past, the United States has been criticized for maintaining significant nuclear stockpiles while attempting to limit other nations’ access to nuclear weapons, particularly by Iran. In a speech at the UN in 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “We think that people who produce the atomic bomb cannot, in fact, speak of supporting world peace.”

A new relationship between powers

Additionally, the treaty is a step toward repairing frayed relations between the United States and Russia. “Together we have stopped the drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation. This is an important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation, and for U.S.-Russia relations,” said President Obama in remarks made shortly after the signing, The New York Times reports.

In recent years, tensions have arisen between the two countries due to the United States’ plans to construct missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as well as its broader missile defense policy in Europe. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the RIA-Novosti News, explained, “America needs nuclear weapons less and less, because it is shifting its focus toward high-precision conventional weapons of both defensive and offensive types. Russia, on the other hand, depends increasingly upon its nuclear deterrent as the bedrock of our national security.”

Therefore, there is significant concern that the United States missile defense system will undermine the logic of mutually assured destruction, where so long as both countries are susceptible to attack, neither will launch the first strike. As the Monitor article points out, Cold War arms control began with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. There had been a need to negotiate over defensive technology until the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2001.

In September 2009, President Obama modified European missile defense plans, scrapping the projects in Poland and the Czech Republic, in order to move forward with negotiations.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, after Georgia threatened military action against separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, further strained relations. Condemning Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to warn that “If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.” Russia defended its actions by comparing it to the United States invasions of Kosovo and Serbia.

Broad military cooperation between Russia and Venezuela, whose president Hugo Chavez has been a vocal critic of the United States, has also sparked tensions in US-Russia relations. In 2008, Russia and Venezuela conducted joint naval exercises. Most recently, the two countries have been negotiating a $5 billion arms deal. In response to US concerns, Mr. Chavez said, “We are not building an alliance against the United States. We don’t care what Washington thinks.” However, a US State Department official, who spoke with the BBC, said, “If Venezuela is going to increase its military hardware, we certainly don’t want to see this hardware migrate to other parts of the hemisphere.”

The new treaty is the culmination of prolonged negotiations. Despite the US ending the projects in Prague and the Czech Republic and repeated reassurance from Washington that the missile defense aims to deter North Korea and Iran, Russia still had concerns over the United States’ nuclear defense sites in Europe. And these concerns created uncertainty as to whether the two countries would be able to reach an agreement. Arguing that such defense capabilities on the part of the US would make Russia more vulnerable to an attack, President Medvedev pushed for language in the treaty that would officially recognize the connection between offensive and defensive systems. The preamble acknowledges the connection, although the treaty itself does not contain binding language that constrains US missile defense capabilities. Despite this, Medvedev decided to move ahead with the treaty. His spokesperson explained to the Interfax news agency that the overall treaty “reflects the balance of interests of both nations.”

Hurdles remain

The treaty still faces some obstacles before it becomes fully implemented. Once it is signed, the treaty must be ratified with 67 votes in the US Senate. The Washington Post reports that President Obama resisted amending the language on the missile defense shield in Europe in part because some Republican senators have expressed doubts about supporting the treaty if it contained concessions regarding the defense sites. According to the Post, Republicans have also expressed concerns regarding the methods of verifying weapons provided for by the treaty.

Additionally, Russia retains the right to reject the treaty if it feels that US missile defense poses a threat or violates the spirit of the agreement. In an interview with The New York Times, retired major general and arms control adviser Vladimir Z. Dvorkin said, “If, for example, the US unilaterally deploys considerable amounts of missile defense, then Russia has the right to withdraw from the agreement because the spirit of the preamble has been violated.” However, as one senior official in the Obama administration pointed out “Any nation has the right to pull out of a treaty.” Despite concerns, some remain optimistic. The Associated Press Reported that after reiterating Russia’s right to withdraw from the treaty if US missile defense impedes its interests, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the new agreement would be the first arms-control treaty to make the parties fully equal.

Additionally, just days before the signing, Russia stated that it sees the need to expand disarmament to include non-nuclear strategic missiles in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Reuters, “To move toward a nuclear-free world, it is necessary to resolve the question of non-nuclear-equipped strategic offensive weapons and strategic weapons in general.” Although non-nuclear weapons are not expected to halt the treaty, they may become a source for future tensions.

Moving towards a world without nuclear weapons

Despite the accomplishments of the treaty, it is only a start. In the coming months, at the 47-nation summit on nuclear security scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. next week, as well as at an upcoming UN Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in May, nations will begin to pave the long way forward for global nuclear disarmament. International concerns over Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions will surely be addressed, but the focus must go beyond those two nations. In a recent article in The International Herald Tribune, Mr. Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and chief UN arms inspector for Iraq, outlines some suggestions and potential obstacles moving forward. He begins by pointing out the upcoming review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will be a stark reminder that it has failed in its goal reducing the number of nuclear weapons to zero. In fact, Mr. Blix writes, the number of nuclear states has actually increased from five to nine since 1970, with 20,000 nuclear weapons in existence worldwide.

Regarding Russia, Mr. Blix argues that the United States must cooperate with Russia on missile defense if it hopes to take further steps towards disarmament. He goes on to say that further disarmament will also be “impeded if Russia feels that the NATO alliance seeks to encircle it by expanding its military cooperation through membership or otherwise with more states neighboring Russia.”

Other roadblocks Mr. Blix cites include failures of United States and China, among other states, to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as well the delay of the ban on enriched uranium and plutonium at the Geneva Disarmament Conference. As he explains, many states have not adhered to the Nonproliferation treaty. In particular, Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has angered Arab states and remains a source of tension in negotiations with Iran. Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, in addition to Iran’s nuclear program, may also complicate efforts to create a nuclear free zone in the Arab world.

Given the challenges faced in achieving the goal of nuclear free world, skepticism exits over the impact of the recent policy shifts. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, a senior Obama administration official said, “This agreement was not meant to be a breakthrough to a world without nuclear weapons.” Rather, it was meant to be a “bridging agreement” for US-Russian nuclear policy.

Mr. Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, an arms control group, questioned the significance of the new limits on the United States’ use of nuclear weapons, telling the Journal, “There’s no real indication of the deep shifts in thinking necessary to begin giving up the nuclear fix.” The Journal goes on to report that “US policy has long held that Washington won’t target non-nuclear nations for attack as long as they are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and aren’t allied with nuclear nations that threaten the US” In the past, President Obama has himself acknowledged that the world will likely not be rid of nuclear weapons in his lifetime.

Despite the long road ahead, in the context of broader international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, the treaty comes at a politically beneficial time for both the United States and Russia. It provides both nations with leverage at the upcoming conference and summit. Active commitment to Nonproliferation goals by the United States and Russia, demonstrated by the treaty, may also encourage cooperation by Iran and North Korea. Ms. Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of state for arms control and security, explained at a press briefing that “the more that we make the NPT the cornerstone of the nonproliferation strategy of the world, the more it calls out people like North Korea and Iran, and the more we can bring people together in a kind of big-tent environment to agree on the NPT principles.”