Mr. Obama goes to Moscow

In his first visit to Russia as president, Obama begins talks on reducing nuclear arsenals


Alex Koppelman
July 6, 2009 11:05PM (UTC)

President Obama was in Moscow on Monday for his first visit to Russia since being inaugurated. While there, he's hoping to bolster relations between the two old Cold War foes, and to make progress towards a new treaty on reducing the amount of nuclear arms each owns.

Reducing the world's capability to wage nuclear war has been a passion of Obama's ever since days at Columbia University, as the New York Times' re-earthing of a 1983 article the future president wrote on the subject shows. It was an issue he worked on in the Senate as well, and used during the presidential campaign to demonstrate his work in that body as well as his bipartisan credentials.

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He has one accomplisment to show from the trip already. Negotiators from the two countries have agreed on a strategic framework they hope will eventually replace the START treaty. Obama and Russian President Dimitri Medvedev signed a Joint Understanding that commits each country to reduce the amount of nuclear warheads in their posession to somewhere between 1500 and 1675. That's still quite a lot, obviously, but significantly less than the current limit of 2200. The same holds true for an agreement on the number of "strategic delivery vehicles" -- that is, missiles and bombers -- each country can have. The cap is currently set at 1600, but will shrink to a range of 500-1100.  Negotiations on a treaty are scheduled to continue.

But, to borrow a phrase particularly suited to this situation, there's been a spectre haunting the whole trip -- the spectre of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former president perceived as the real power behind Medvedev. In fact, the very first question at a joint press conference held by the two current presidents was about Medvedev and whether Obama trusts him and sees him as the one truly in charge. In his response, Obama was diplomatic, but expressed little confidence that Medvedev is really in charge, saying, "My understanding is that President Medvedev is the President, Prime Minister Putin is the Prime Minister, and they allocate power in accordance with Russia's form of government in the same way that we allocate power in the United States."


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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