President Obama speaks at an arms control symposium at the National War… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Hoping to salvage his arms control legacy, President Obama called Monday for the renewal of a major post-Cold War agreement between the United States and Russia to secure and dismantle nuclear weapons left over from the former Soviet Union.
In an appeal aimed at Moscow, Obama offered to renegotiate terms of the 20-year-old threat-reduction initiative known for its chief sponsors, former Sen. Sam Nunn and outgoing Sen. Richard G. Lugar, and use it as a template for future U.S. cooperation with Russia.
"Let's update it," Obama told an arms control symposium at the National War College in his first comments on foreign policy since he was reelected. "Let's work with Russia as an equal partner. Let's continue the work that's so important to the security of both our countries, and I'm optimistic that we can. And we have to keep creating new partnerships."
Russian officials have said they want to end their participation in the Nunn-Lugar program, which helped rid the world of more than 7,500 nuclear warheads, plus hundreds of intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines, from a half-dozen former Soviet republics.
The pact was forged after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which splintered into smaller independent states and left behind a widely scattered nuclear arsenal. Russian officials complain that the agreement hasn't kept pace with changing relations between Washington and Moscow. They object to requirements for Western financing and inspections, for example.
The president didn't provide any details, or hint at whether he would push to negotiate deeper cuts in the nuclear arms stockpiles or seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Congressional resistance has grown since President Clinton failed to win passage.
The Nunn-Lugar program has been a crucial part of U.S.-Russian relations over the last two decades, and its collapse would be a serious blow to Obama's attempts to improve relations with Moscow and his own attempts to reduce the threat of nuclear war.
Obama advocated for a world without nuclear weapons when he served in the U.S. Senate, but he failed to achieve significant progress during his first term in the White House. His comments Monday reassured the arms control community that he remains committed to the objective, even though he did not provide a road map or new set of policy goals for his second term.
"I assume the president has a more ambitious arms control agenda for his second term," said Steven Pifer, a veteran State Department and National Security Council staffer who is now director of the arms control initiative at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
"He needs to set out his agenda sooner rather than later," Pifer said. "If he wants another treaty as part of his legacy, it has to be done in time for a ratification debate in 2015, not in the 2016 election year."
Despite the Russian threat to let the program expire next spring, U.S. officials believe Russia may prefer to reshape the joint effort rather than abandon it. The initiative brings in money for the work of disarmament, and gives Russia valuable contacts in Washington.
Russian officials are likely to strongly resist U.S. efforts to reduce their so-called tactical nuclear weapons, designed for use on a battlefield. Russia also is looking for leverage to stop U.S.-backed plans to build missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which it views as a threat to its military deterrence capabilities.
Obama compared the work ahead to the task he and Lugar saw when they visited Ukraine together in 2005. Lugar, a veteran of the Foreign Relations Committee, was showing Obama, then a new senator, the ropes on arms control.
As they toured a factory, Obama said, they watched women working at a table filled with old artillery shells.
"The women were sitting there taking them apart by hand, slowly, carefully, one by one," Obama recalled.
"It took decades and extraordinary sums of money to build those arsenals," Obama said. "And it's going to take decades and continued investments to dismantle them."