Obama, Medvedev Sign START Treaty on Nuclear Weapons, but Russia Is Uneasy

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President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the START treaty on nuclear weapons today. While both hailed the missile reduction pact as a landmark, Russia is uneasy about its strategic future.

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev flourished their pens and signed the START nuclear missile reduction treaty in Prague today. The deal was a year in the making and represents the first major strategic accord between the former superpowers since the end of the cold war.

It was a warm and smile-filled "kumbaya" moment for the US and Russia, whose relationship has seen some stomach-churning ups and downs in recent years. President Obama hailed the agreement as an "important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation and for US-Russia relations."

But the gloomy signals coming out of Moscow this week suggest that the Russians harbor serious doubts about the viability of the treaty they just signed and even deeper misgivings about Barack Obama's changes to US nuclear weapons doctrine that are ostensibly aimed at moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons

"We are seeing, in sharp relief, that the US and Russia view the strategic landscape through completely different lenses," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a Moscow think tank whose members include top Kremlin advisers. "Moscow is laying down the message that this new treaty is fine, but we should not interpret this as a new era in relations. The strategic picture is changing in ways that Russia is not completely comfortable with, and we need to keep our options open."

In a wide-ranging press conference Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shocked many by warning that Russia might pull out of the treaty if US plans to station strategic anti- missile interceptors in Europe, which were suspended by Mr. Obama last year, are revived during the 10-year life of the START agreement.

"If and when our monitoring of how those plans are implemented shows they are entering a stage of creating strategic missile defense systems ... we will have the right to resort to [withdrawal] provisions provided in this treaty," Mr. Lavrov said.

He also made clear that Russia is not open to the further cuts in nuclear arsenals that the White House is already pressing for, and appeared to wonder out loud whether Obama's campaign for a nuclear weapons-free world wasn't part of an American plot to dominate the globe via its supremacy in conventional arms.

"We believe the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons is very important," he said. "[But] world states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community."

Some experts say Lavrov was addressing domestic skeptics, including the powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who has publicly criticized the treaty.

"President Medvedev is very worried about possible domestic opposition to this treaty," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Several parties in the Duma, including United Russia [which is led by Putin], and the Communists, have expressed doubts. Medvedev sees a ratification battle looming."

Disappointed Moscow

But Lavrov's tough language also reflects Moscow's deep disappointment that the accord contains no firm link between the substantial cuts both sides will be making to their stocks of offensive atomic weapons and Russia's demand for follow-on negotiations to limit strategic missile defense. …