President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a preliminary agreement Monday to reduce the world's two largest nuclear stockpiles by as much as a third, to the lowest levels of any U.S.-Russia accord, and counter what Obama called "a sense of drift" in the countries' relations.
"We must lead by example, and that's what we are doing here today," Obama declared in Kremlin hall glittering in gold. "We resolve to reset U.S.-Russian relations so that we can cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest."
The document signed by the two leaders at a Moscow summit, Obama's first in Russia, is meant as a guide for negotiators as the nations work toward a replacement pact for the START arms control agreement that expires in December. The joint understanding also commits the updated treaty to lower longer-range missiles for delivering nuclear bombs to between 500 and 1,100. The limit for warheads would be in a range of 1,500 to 1,675 each. However, there are disagreements on what to count.
Medvedev called Monday's agreement a "reasonable compromise."
Between them, the two countries possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Under current treaties, each country is allowed a maximum of 2,200 warheads and 1,600 launch vehicles.
A White House statement said the new treaty "will include effective verification measures" and Obama said definitively the new treaty would be completed by the end of the year.
The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, led each country to cut its nuclear warheads by at least one-quarter, to about 6,000. The 2002 Treaty of Moscow called for further cuts to between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed warheads by 2012.
But Moscow and Washington have long argued over what weapons should be subject to cuts.
Russia wants to limit missiles, bombers and submarines along with nuclear warheads, just as the original START treaty did. The 2002 agreement applied only to warheads. Also, the United States has been prepared to count only the warheads ready for launch, while Russia wants to count those in storage as well.
The two leaders appeared together at a news conference in a gilded and columned Kremlin hall, where they and other officials from both countries signed and exchanged documents with great flourish and much handshaking.
Among the side deals meant to sweeten Obama's two days of talks here and show progress toward improving badly damaged U.S.-Russian relations was permission from Moscow for the United States to transport arms across its land and airspace into Afghanistan for the war there. The White House says the deal will save the U.S. $133 million a year, by waiving transit fees and shortening flying time.
They outlined other areas in which they said their countries would work together to help stabilize Afghanistan, including increasing assistance to the Afghan army and police, and training counternarcotics personnel. A joint statement said that they welcomed increased international support for upcoming Afghan elections and that they were prepared to help Afghanistan and Pakistan work together against the "common threats of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking."
Among other agreements was the resumption of military cooperation, suspended after Russia invaded neighboring Georgia last August and sent relations into a nosedive.
The White House announced that the two nations plan 20 exchanges and meetings this year. For example, Russian military cadets will come to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The two countries also plan a joint exercise concerning responses to possible plane hijackings.
They also promised fresh cooperation on public health issues and revived a joint commission to try to account for missing service members of both countries dating back to World War II. The commission was first created by the first President Bush and President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s, but the Russians later downgraded their participation. The U.S. hope is that the Russians will now open some of their more sensitive archives to U.S. researchers seeking details about missing American servicemen.
Yet, the two sides remain stalemated over the U.S. pursuit of a missile-defense system in Europe, pushed hard by Bush and still under review by Obama's 7-month-old administration. Both sides hardened their positions ahead of the summit, and Obama gave a lengthy rationale in defense of the system at Medvedev's side.
Obama suggested the United States will not back away from the view that it has a right to pursue defensive systems separate from the offensive weapons that are the subject of most arms control negotiations. Obama repeated the U.S. position that the planned missile and radar system is aimed at intercepting missiles from Iran or North Korea and has nothing to do with countering" a mighty Russian arsenal," as many in Russia suspect.
Medvedev called the missile defense issue "a difficult area for our discussion," but suggested that the new openness between the two countries would help the discussions ahead.
Obama needs Russia's help chiefly in pressuring Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions, but also in tackling terrorism, global warming and the economy. But with Russia's public wary of America and ties frayed over Moscow's war in Georgia and the missile defense plan, Obama's desire to move forward is a huge test of his diplomatic skills.
"The president and I agreed that the relationship between Russia and the United States has suffered from a sense of drift," he said at Medvedev's side. "President Medvedev and I are committed to leaving behind the suspicion and rivalry of the past."
His host expressed similar good will.
"This is the first but very important step in improving full-scale cooperation between our two countries, which would go to the benefit of both states," the Russian leader said.
Obama said he and Medvedev have developed a strong working relationship during two direct meetings and numerous other contacts, and that he trusts the Russian leader to follow through on the agreements they struck.
The U.S. president refused to be drawn into a debate over who really holds the reigns of power in Russia, widely believed to be Medvedev's predecessor and mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "My understanding is, President Medvedev is the president ... and Prime Minister Putin is the prime minister," Obama simply said.
Obama, who meets with Putin on Tuesday, caused a stir in Russia before his trip by telling The Associated Press that Putin has to learn that "the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated."
The summit starts a weeklong trip for Obama that also features G-8 meetings and a visit with the pope in Italy, and a speech in Ghana.
After Obama landed in Moscow under drizzly gray skies, he introduced his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters to Russian officials waiting to greet them. The entourage then headed to a wreath-laying ceremony at Russia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Having enjoyed adoring crowds in other parts of Europe, Obama will face a far more skeptical Russian population.
Just 15 percent of Russians say the U.S. is playing a positive role in the world; most said the United States abuses it power and makes Russia do what the U.S. wants, according to the University of Maryland's WorldPublicOpinion.org out Sunday.
"I would like to see America meddle less in other countries," said Valentina Titova, a 60-year-old retired economist strolling not far from the Kremlin.
Obama will outline his vision for U.S.-Russian relations at a speech Tuesday at the New Economic School.