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Obama seeks further cuts to U.S., Russia nuclear arsenals

The president wants to move beyond the reductions set forth in the New START pact. Congressional Republicans and Putin voice their opposition.

June 19, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama, accompanied by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arrives for his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
President Obama, accompanied by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arrives… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)

BERLIN — Despite an uphill battle both in Moscow and in Congress, President Obama vowed Wednesday to try to shrink the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, making the case for what he called a "move beyond Cold War nuclear postures" to enhance global security.

In a foreign policy speech here, Obama said he would seek to cut by up to one-third the number of deployed strategic U.S. nuclear warheads beyond levels set by the New START treaty — if Russia would agree to the same, an unlikely prospect given the mounting tension with Moscow. He said both countries could cut their arsenals without undermining deterrence or capabilities.

Obama also said that after a "comprehensive review," he had directed the Defense Department to strengthen its nonnuclear capabilities, to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring nonnuclear attacks and in contingency planning and security strategy.

The 2010 New START, or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, calls for the United States and Russia each to cut their nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads by 2018, the lowest level since the 1950s. Obama's proposal would reduce that to about 1,000. He also called for "bold reductions" in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.

"Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be," he told about 4,500 people, many waving German and U.S. flags, on the east side of the iconic Brandenburg Gate in blistering summer heat.

The reaction from Republican lawmakers in Washington and Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated how distant that goal remains.

Putin, who openly disagreed with Obama over Syria this week at an economic summit in Northern Ireland, offered no support for his nuclear proposal Wednesday.

"We cannot allow the balance of the strategic deterrence system to be broken, or the effectiveness of our nuclear forces to be diminished," Putin said at a defense industry meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told the RIA Novosti news agency that Russia could not "indefinitely and bilaterally talk with the United States about cuts and restrictions on nuclear weapons in a situation where a whole number of other countries are expanding their nuclear and missile potentials."

Ryabkov said no discussion on nuclear cuts was possible before an "acceptable solution" was reached on missile defense. Russia opposes the U.S.-backed North Atlantic Treaty Organization plan to build a missile defense system in Europe, which Moscow views as a threat to its military deterrence capabilities.

Another obstacle in Obama's path is Russia's desire to retain thousands of battlefield-sized, or so-called tactical, nuclear weapons, which it views as crucial to its defense.

Senate conservatives have made it clear that they would oppose any treaty to cut the nuclear arsenal below New START limits. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Obama's proposal "misguided and dangerous."

"A robust and reliable U.S. nuclear arsenal discourages nuclear proliferation and deters nuclear attacks on the United States and our allies," she said. "What Obama sees as compromise, Putin sees as weakness."

For Obama, "these are all high hills to climb," said John D. Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, an arms control advocacy group in Washington. His group is urging Obama to take unilateral steps to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons.

Obama indicated that his first choice would be nuclear reduction through a treaty. But he left open the possibility of a nonbinding reciprocal agreement with the Russians to shrink the stockpile without requiring Senate approval.

Obama's remarks seemed aimed at building his legacy in the White House and at convincing Europeans that he is the same ambitious, globally minded and liberal politician who drew a cheering crowd of 200,000 people onto the streets of Berlin when he visited as a presidential candidate in 2008.

Warhead inventory

Estimated number of nuclear warheads:

Note: Non-strategic warheads are generally less powerful and for use in tactical situations. All U.S. warheads in storage are strategic; Russia’s warheads in storage include both strategic and non-strategic.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken

Graphic by Doug Stevens

This time, he declared climate change "the global threat of our time" and called for action on poverty and joblessness. He also said this could be "the first AIDS-free generation" if citizens pressed their leaders with urgency.

But his attempt at uplift was complicated by his other task: defending administration policies that are unpopular in Europe.

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