WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama called on Russia on Monday to renew a two-decade-old nuclear disarmament program that Moscow has threatened to cancel as the two sides try to figure out the future of a rocky relationship now that elections in both countries are behind them.
Russia declared this fall that it would not renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which has helped rid the former Soviet Union of thousands of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. But in a speech, Obama chose to interpret the Russian statements as a negotiating position to change the program rather than halt it altogether.
“Russia has said that our current agreement hasn’t kept pace with the changing relationship between our countries,” Obama said at the National Defense University, where he praised the program’s accomplishments. “To which we say, let’s update it. 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.”
Whether Russia is willing to do that remains unclear. Even if it is, Moscow has suggested it would link renewal of the program to U.S. concessions on its plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe aimed at defending against Iranian aggression. Obama was overheard telling his Russian counterpart this year that “after my election I have more flexibility” on missile defense, prompting Republicans to accuse him of plotting to sell out the system.
Obama made no mention of missile defense Monday, but in reaching out to Moscow he seemed to be taking the opening step in a postelection dance in which the two countries will re-evaluate their ties.
In recent months, Russia ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development to leave and enacted laws aimed at nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign financing.
The announcement in October that Russia would not renew the Nunn-Lugar program when it expires in the spring underscored how sour relations had become. Through all the ups and downs over the past 20 years, Nunn-Lugar had always been largely immune to the political tides, in part because Russia saw that having U.S. money and help in slimming down its nuclear arsenal was in its own interest.
Since it began, Nunn-Lugar has helped to deactivate 7,600 nuclear warheads and destroy or eliminate 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 500 missile silos, 680 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 900 nuclear air-to-surface missiles. But the program still envisioned getting rid of hundreds more weapons to meet targets for 2017.
Obama’s outreach to Russia on Nunn-Lugar came during a speech paying tribute to its patrons, former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., who lost a primary this year. Obama hailed them as “real visionaries” who “challenged us to think anew, to imagine, after decades of confrontation, how our nations might engage in cooperation.”