Obama’s Moscow Visit Highlights Progress and Obstacles

Anya Loukianova
Miles Pomper
Nikolai Sokov
Cristina Hansell

July 10, 2009

On July 6-7, 2009, US President Barack Obama conducted his first state visit to the Russian Federation. Following in the spirit of the commitment to a “nuclear free world” voiced by Obama and Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev during their April 2009 meeting in London, the Moscow summit’s main deliverable dealt with strategic arms control. (1) The summit also produced a rich set of statements in other areas of mutual interest, reaffirming that the US-Russian relationship did not need to be based solely on this historically tested but shaky pillar of bilateral cooperation. (2)

Strategic Stability and Arms Control

Obama's Moscow Visit: Presidents Medvedev and Obama Signing Documents

Presidents Medvedev and Obama,
Source: WikiMedia Commons

At the heart of the summit’s agenda were the time-pressed negotiations of a successor agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), set to expire in December 2009. In a July 6 statement, Medvedev and Obama affirmed the progress of their negotiators in hammering out “a new, comprehensive, legally binding agreement on reducing and limiting strategic offensive weapons,” pledged to “continue their work toward finalizing an agreement for signature and ratification at the earliest possible date,” and issued a joint understanding intended to “guide the remainder of the negotiations.” (3)

The new treaty will be valid for “ten years, unless it is superseded before that time by a subsequent treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive arms.” The text of the joint understanding provides the tentative floor and ceiling numbers for strategic warheads (1,500-1,675) and launchers (500-1,100). (4) The wide spread of numbers appears to indicate that negotiators have yet to tackle some of the most difficult issues—particularly how deeply the number of strategic delivery vehicles on each side should be cut and what counting rules should be used for verifying that launchers and warheads fall within designated limits. (5) If Moscow and Washington agreed on the higher levels and if current START counting rules were retained, neither country would have to cut its actual and planned number of launchers substantially even if the ceiling permitted under strategic arms control accords were lowered. As of January 1, the United States, for example, retained a little less than 1,200 strategic delivery vehicles under current START counting rules, while Russia had 814. (6)

The uncertainty surrounding the numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles as well as the promise, in the joint understanding, to reach an agreement on accounting rules reflects the underlying tension over the so-called “uploading capability” – the ability of the United States to return warheads to delivery vehicles (Russia’s delivery vehicles would have to be loaded to the full capacity just to reach the 1,500 lower limit). (7) Negotiators apparently are considering several options to address that potential asymmetry, and a low limit on the number of delivery vehicles seems to be the option preferred by Russia: if the United States is forced to reduce the number of its missiles and heavy bombers, these will be loaded to full or near-full capacity and consequently the uploading capability will shrink. The wide range of the target for delivery vehicles in the joint understanding hints at US reluctance to accept that option.

To be sure, by agreeing to such broad goals, Obama and Medvedev appear to have granted their negotiators sufficient flexibility that also allows both sides to assuage domestic reservations about dramatic cuts prior to the completion by Washington of the Nuclear Posture Review process, and the revision by Moscow of its Military Doctrine—both due at the end of 2009. (8) Yet, if negotiators wait for these other processes to be completed they will almost certainly not be able to win Duma and Congressional approval of the new agreement before START expires, potentially creating other legal and political complications. (9)

Still, the text of the joint understanding and comments made by Russian officials indicate that the sides have tentatively agreed to address some of Russia’s concerns about US Prompt Global Strike plans. (10) The curtness of the relevant plank, however, suggests that a wide gap exists between the two parties on that issue.

Finally, the new agreement is expected to include “effective,” though unspecified at this time, “verification measures, drawn from the experience of the Parties in implementing START.” Compared to other issues, verification is likely to prove the easiest because, as the language above suggests, the parties will simply “cut and paste” from START I with an eye at making them less expensive and cumbersome. (11)

The new treaty is not expected to cover tactical nuclear weapons, which may become an issue when it is considered in the US Congress. Recently, for example, a report issued by a panel of experts sponsored by the conservative Center for Security Policy argued that it would be ” (i)ll advised” to consider cuts below 1,700 warheads because of the “immense advantage the Kremlin enjoys in nonstrategic weapons and the threat they pose to the former Soviet republics and American allies on Russia’s littoral.” (12)(13)

At the same time some progress appears to have been made in insulating the new agreement from a dispute over US plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The stakes on this issue were increased by Medvedev in several statements in the last several months: he stated, in particular, that without an agreement on that issue reduction of strategic weapons would be impossible. The summit achieved what appears to be a constructive compromise. Building on the April joint statement’s intent to discuss “the relationship between offensive and defensive arms,” the presidents again affirmed the linkage between “offense” and “defense,” and that general statement appears to have been sufficient for Medvedev. Moscow and Washington issued a separate statement on missile defense focused on an agreement to conduct joint threat assessments on missile proliferation and pursue the long-stalled activation of a planned Joint Data Exchange Center. (14) The JDEC, first proposed in 1998, is intended as a bilateral channel for sharing strategic early warning systems data on ballistic missile launches. (15)

Nuclear Nonproliferation and Cooperation

In a joint statement, Medvedev and Obama reaffirmed their “special responsibility for security of nuclear weapons,” “stress (ed) that nuclear security requirements need continuous upgrading,” and indicated that they would “continue cooperating on effective export controls” in order to prevent misdirection and misuse of “materials, equipment, and technologies” by non-state actors. Though this statement showed a strengthened focus on nuclear security and the nuclear terrorism threat, the Moscow summit yielded no visible progress on implementation of several troubled joint initiatives.

For example, hopes that the summit might advance a long-stalled agreement under which each country would dispose of 34 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium were dashed when the statement merely reaffirmed that “both sides remain (ed) committed to executing” the plutonium management and disposition agreement without offering up specifics. (16) In 2000, Moscow and Washington agreed to dispose of the fissile material, which would be enough for as many as 10,000 nuclear weapons. That agreement had already stalled for seven years when in November 2007 then-US Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Sergey Kiriyenko agreed to recast the agreement to reflect Russian disposition preferences more clearly. In a November 19, 2007 joint statement Bodman and Kiriyenko agreed that the United States would cooperate with Russia to convert the Russian weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel, made of plutonium and depleted uranium. Starting in 2012, Russia would be able irradiate this fuel in its fast reactors, eventually employing at least two reactors, a BN-600 fast reactor currently operating at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant and a more advanced BN-800 fast reactor under construction at the same site. But the Bodman-Kiriyenko statement has yet to be finalized as an amendment to the formal agreement and lawmakers in the US Congress have objected to the deal, indicating they were unprepared to provide needed support. (17)

Similarly, Moscow and Washington made only a very small step forward on efforts to minimize stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the civilian sector. While low enriched uranium (LEU) is used in nuclear power plants, a more highly enriched form (i.e. with more of the chain-reacting isotope U-235) is used for nuclear weapons and in some civilian applications, such as making medical isotopes or conducting research. Experts have long worried that civilian stocks of HEU are vulnerable to theft by terrorists. (18) The United States and Russia have sought to minimize the use and danger of HEU in several ways: converting research reactors and other facilities that run on HEU to LEU; developing new high density low enriched fuels to facilitate this process; providing greater security to facilities that still use HEU; and acting to return fresh and spent nuclear fuel supplied by Russia and the United States to the two nuclear superpowers, given their greater experience in handling and securing such material. The Bush administration gathered much of its efforts in this area under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative and with pressure from Congress significantly boosted funding in this area. (19) President Obama, in his April speech in Prague, called for securing all vulnerable nuclear material worldwide before the end of his first term in 2013. (20)

Yet, at the July meeting Obama and Medvedev do not appear to have agreed to go much beyond current activities. Russia holds the largest stock of HEU in the world, estimated at almost 1,000 metric tons and operates over fifty research reactors, pulsed reactors and critical assemblies using HEU, as well as nine HEU-fueled icebreakers. (21) According to some sources, the United States has unsuccessfully attempted to wrangle a Russian commitment to convert its research facilities at a 2005 summit in Bratislava, where a joint US-Russian effort to enhance security at nuclear facilities was launched. (22) The July 2009 summit contains only one new commitment towards this aim: to cooperate “on conducting feasibility studies to explore possibilities for conversion of such individual reactors in the United States and Russia.” While individual Russian reactor operators have been interested in cooperating on such studies, as well as actual prototype conversions, for several years, there had been no higher-level blessing until this point. However, the statement fell well short of a promise to carry out any such conversions. It noted only that the sides supported HEU minimization in civilian applications “to the maximum extent possible, where feasible,” with the definition of “feasible” remaining unclear.

Some Russian officials have suggested that Moscow has tied progress on these issues to the Obama administration’s willingness to resubmit a nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries to Congress. The Bush administration sent the agreement to Capitol Hill last year but withdrew it after Moscow’s August 2008 conflict with Georgia. The July summit merely restated a commitment from the April meeting between the two leaders that the two countries “will work to bring into force” the nuclear cooperation agreement. Some senior Obama administration officials have indicated that the administration is conditioning a decision to resubmit the agreement on greater Russian support for efforts to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Without such movement, the agreement would face a tough fight on Capitol Hill.

On a more positive note, however, the joint statement built on the April recognition “of the importance of the IAEA safeguards system,” noting that the sides “intended to expand opportunities for bilateral and multilateral cooperation to strengthen the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the international safeguards system.”

On the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, Moscow and Washington indicated their intent to “conduct… world-wide regional nuclear security best-practices workshops to facilitate greater international cooperation in implementation of this initiative.” Further, Obama noted that Washington’s global nuclear security summit might be followed up with a similar summit, this time hosted by Moscow. (23)

Broadening the High-Level Cooperation Agenda

On the heels of the visit of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, to Moscow, the sides signed a new strategic framework for military-to-military engagement that sought to deepen bilateral exchanges, as well as partake in joint exercises and gaming. (24) Finally, the parties released a joint statement on Afghanistan, pledging to work together within the Russian-US Counter-Terrorism Working Group and the NATO-Russia Council to coordinate efforts to stabilize the situation in the country and counter drug trafficking. (25) A bilateral agreement was concluded to allow the United States to use Russian territory to transport personnel and equipment for Coalition forces. (26)

Another important outcome of the summit was creation of a Bilateral Presidential Commission, chaired by the Presidents and co-chaired by the Russian Foreign Minister and US Secretary of State, that would tackle a range of key issues. Relevant working groups for this commission include nuclear energy and nuclear security, arms control, and international security, foreign policy and fighting terrorism, science and technologies, and cooperation in prevention and handling of emergency situations, among others. (28)

When Obama and Medvedev met in London earlier this year, they agreed to work hard to repair the “drift” in bilateral relations. (29) The Moscow summit provided the two presidents a useful forum for discussion and debate of pressing issues on the international and bilateral agenda. However,if the items addressed in the Obama-Medvedev joint statements are to be fully implemented, they will require the sustained attention of the two presidents and their respective bureaucracies.


(1) “Joint Statement by President Obama and President Medvedev,” April 1, 2009, http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2009/April/20090401125216xjsnommis0.8078381.html.
(2) The summary and links of documents agreed to is available at the White House website: “In Russia, Defining the Reset,” July 6, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/In-Russia-Defining-the-Reset/.
(3) “Fact Sheet: The Joint Understanding for the START Follow-on Treaty,” July 6, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/FACT-SHEET-The-Joint-Understanding-for-the-START-Follow-on-Treaty/.
(4) Russian text is available at http://kremlin.ru/text/docs/2009/07/219078.shtml; English text: http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2384/joint-understanding-us-full-text.
(5) For various assessments, see Pavel Podvig, “Good progress at the Moscow summit,” Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, July 6, http://russianforces.org/blog/2009/07/good_progress_at_the_moscow_su.shtml and Jeffrey Lewis, “START Joint Understanding,” Arms Control Wonk, July 7, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2381/start-joint-understanding.
(6) “START Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms,” State Department Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, Fact Sheet, April 1, 2009, http://www.state.gov/t/vci/rls/121027.htm; http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/FACT-SHEET-The-Joint-Understanding-for-the-START-Follow-on-Treaty/. See also, Kingston Reif, “US and Russian Arms Control Treaty Limits and Current Nuclear Stockpiles,” Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, July 7, 2009.
(7) See discussion in Nikolai Sokov, “US and Russia Set to Begin Talks to Replace START Treaty,” WMD Insights, September 2007, http://www.wmdinsights.com/I18/I18_R2_ReplaceSTARTI.htm
(8) For discussion of US Congressional concerns, see Jonathan Broder, “Non-Nuclear Ambition,” CQ Weekly, June 29, 2009, pp. 1508-1515; Laura Rozen, “State Nominees on Hold?,” The Cable, June 16, 2009, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/06/19/state_nominees_put_on_hold. For a flavor of Russian concerns, see Igor Korotchenko, “Sokhranit potentsial otvetnogo udara,” (Preserving second strike potential) Voenno Promyshlennyi Kur’yer, May 27-June 2, 2009, http://www.vpk-news.ru/article.asp?pr_sign=archive.2009.286.articles.geopolitics_02.
(9) John Isaacs and Kingston Reif, “Will the Senate Support New Nuclear Arms Reductions?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 23, 2009, http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/will-the-senate-support-new-nuclear-arms-reductions.
(10) The text is as follows: “A provision on the impact of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles in a non-nuclear configuration on strategic stability.”
(11) For a detailed explanation of the Russian position, see Wade Boese, “Russia Wants Limits on Prompt Global Strike,” Arms Control Today, September 2008, http://www.armscontrol.org/print/2945.
(12) See discussion of verification in Sokov, op.cit.
(13) “US Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting it Right,” a white paper by the New Deterrent Working Group, July 2009, http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/upload/wysiwyg/center%20publication%20pdfs/NDWG-%20Getting%20It%20Right.pdf.
(14) Joint Statement by Dmitry A. Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, and Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, on Missile Defense Issues, July 6, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Joint-Statement-by-Dmitry-A-Medvedev-President-of-the-Russian-Federation-and-Barack-Obama-President-of-the-United-States-of-America-on-Missile-Defense-Issues/.
(15) For a short summary on JDEC, see Wade Boese, “Joint Data Exchange Center on Hold,” Arms Control Today, June 2006, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_06/CartwrightInterview#Sidebar.
(16) For a good recent summary of plutonium disposition, see Robert Zarate, “How should the US and Russia manage excess Plutonium?” NPEC, http://www.npec-web.org/Essays/20090615-Zarate-PlutoniumManagement.pdf.
(17) Miles A. Pomper, “US, Russia Recast Plutonium-Disposition Pact,” Arms Control Today, December 2007, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_12/USRussia.
(18) See discussion of threats posed by HEU in the NTI Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination Resource Collection, http://www.nti.org/db/heu/index.html.
(19) See Global Threat Reduction Office website, http://nnsa.energy.gov/nuclear_nonproliferation/1550.htm.
(20) “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered/.
(21) As of early 2007, Russia had between 655 and 955 MT of HEU. See International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), “Global Fissile Material Report 2007: Developing the Technical Basis for Policy Initiatives to Secure and Irreversibly Reduce Stocks of Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Materials,” p. 10.
(22) Anya Loukianova and Cristina Hansell, “Leveraging US Policy for a Global Commitment to HEU Elimination,” Nonproliferation Review, July 2008, pg. 68.
(23) “Press conference by President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia, The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia,” July 6, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Press-Conference-by-President-Obama-and-President-Medvedev-of-Russia/.
(24) See “Fact Sheet: United States-Russia Military to Military Relations,” July 6, 2009.
(25) Joint Statement by the President of the United States of America Barack Obama and President of the Russian Federation D.A. Medvedev Concerning Afghanistan, July 6, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Joint-Statement-By-President-Of-The-United-States-Of-America-Barack-Obama-And-President-Of-The-Russian-Federation-D-A-Medvedev-Concerning-Afghanistan/.
(26) See “Fact Sheet: United States-Russia Military Transit Agreement,” July 6, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/FACT-SHEET-United-States-Russia-Military-Transit-Agreement/.
(27) For a listing of working groups, see Fact Sheet: US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, July 6, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/FACT-SHEET-US-Russia-Bilateral-Presidential-Commission/.
(28) See “Background Readout by Senior Administration Officials on President Obama’s Meeting with Russian President Medvedev,” April 1, 2009, London, United Kingdom, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Background-Readout-By-Senior-Administration-Officials-On-President-Obamas-Meeting-With-Russian-President-Medvedev/.
(29) “Remarks by President Dmitriy Medvedev of the Russian Federation and President Barack Obama of the United States of America, Winfield House, London, United Kingdom,” April 1, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Obama-And-Russian-President-Medvedev-After-Meeting/.

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