WASHINGTON - The United States and Russia forged a historic treaty yesterday that would require both nations to slash their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over the next decade. President Bush, who plans to sign the treaty in Moscow next week, said it would "liquidate the legacy of the Cold War."
With little advance word, Bush appeared outside the White House to make the announcement, hours after U.S. and Russian diplomats completed months of negotiations. The two sides had been eager to strike a deal in advance of Bush's visit to Russia.
Each country made concessions. Bush dropped his original objection to signing a formal treaty. And Russian President Vladimir V. Putin granted the United States broad flexibility in deciding how many nuclear warheads will be destroyed and how many can be stored for possible future use.
The treaty, analysts noted, is important mostly for its symbolism; it does little more than keep both countries on course to scale back their nuclear arsenals in ways they had planned. But the accord could open the door for greater cooperation on more complex issues, such as how to entice American investors to Russia and how to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization.
The treaty, which must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate, is expected to be approved.
Critics expressed concern about the absence of any requirement that warheads be destroyed. Allowing Russia to stockpile weapons once they are taken out of deployment, some said, could pose a serious danger if terrorists or rogue nations were able to obtain the warheads and use them.
Under the treaty, which must also be ratified by the Russian Duma, both sides will cut their arsenals from about 6,000 warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. The deal, officials said, all but replaces the START II treaty, signed in 1993, to cut each side's arsenals to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads. That treaty has not taken effect.
In practical terms, the new accord is only codifying sharp cuts in both nations' arsenal that were in the works under President Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, before leaving Washington for Chicago, Bush said the signing of the treaty would "begin the new era of U.S.-Russian relationships."
"The new era will be a period of enhanced mutual security, economic security and improved relations," Bush said. "It will make the world more peaceful and put behind us the Cold War once and for all."
In Russia, Putin said, "Without the interested, active position of the American administration and the attention of President Bush, it would have been difficult to reach such agreements."
Yesterday's announcement comes as the two nations have grown especially close since Russia committed itself to working as a full partner in fighting global terrorism after Sept. 11.
Bush and Putin will most certainly sign the three-page document - far shorter than previous arms treaties - in a formal setting amid much fanfare. But many questions remain about how the treaty will be implemented, a fact both presidents have played down as they have stressed their warm personal bond in recent months.
Russia has long objected to the Bush administration's desire to stockpile rather than destroy arms. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said his country still opposes the U.S. position that weapons need only to be taken out of commission. He did not say whether Moscow would revive its objections to the U.S. position as the treaty is being implemented.
A senior Bush official said most of the U.S. warheads that will be removed from the U.S. arsenal would be destroyed. He stressed, however, that a Pentagon report on U.S. nuclear capabilities released this year said that in light of uncertain global threats, "there may be requirements for us to have nuclear capabilities far into the future."
For that reason, the official said, "some of the weapons will be dismantled, some of the weapons will be placed in deep storage, and some of them will be stored as operational spares."
Critics said they feared that Russian warheads, or stockpiled nuclear materials, could end up in the wrong hands. They noted that while active nuclear warheads in Russia are tightly guarded, those that go in storage facilities are far less secure.
Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the House Energy Committee, called the new treaty "a great step" but added that destroying weapons would make sure they never fall to terrorists.
"Russia and the United States should reach an agreement to destroy each weapon," he said, "not keep them in a garage."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - where hearings on the treaty will take place - supported the agreement but made clear that hard questions would be raised: "Are the reductions generally irreversible, or will most of the weapons be put in storage for later use? Will the reductions take place promptly? How well will we be able to verify Russian compliance with the treaty's provisions?"
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, called the accord "a step toward a safer world."
The treaty disappointed advocates who have been pushing for deeper and more verifiable arms cuts. Philipp Bleek, a policy analyst at the independent Arms Control Association, said it appeared that in sealing a deal on a treaty in advance of their summit, the Americans and Russians left themselves too much flexibility and papered over disagreements.
"They agreed to disagree," Bleek said, adding that he saw little enthusiasm from Bush to work for a strong treaty.
"The Bush administration has made clear that they are not particularly interested in an agreement and that they are really doing a favor to their friend Vladimir Putin," Bleek said. "They realized that they could do this in a way that did not constrain them too much."
In November, when Putin visited Washington and Bush's Texas ranch, Bush said at first that he opposed a formal agreement and planned to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal unilaterally, regardless of what Russia did. By the end of Putin's visit, Bush said he would not object to a formal treaty.
Most analysts agreed that while Bush planned to move ahead with arms cuts regardless of a treaty, the deal is something Putin desperately sought and needed to boost his political standing at home.
James Lindsay, a senior foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said a formal agreement with the United States raises Russia's stature on the world stage at a time when the country is being viewed as increasingly irrelevant.
"For Putin, it is important for reasons both at home domestically and abroad to have some symbol of Russia's continued great power status," Lindsay said. "Russia is the only country in a bilateral nuclear relationship with the United States, and that has some symbolic value."
U.S. officials seemed more comfortable bending to Putin's demand for a formal treaty after Putin decided in recent months to raise no formal objection to the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That withdrawal was crucial for Bush and his desire to seek a missile defense system.
Because both nations were planning to reduce their nuclear arsenals, reaching the agreement was in many ways the easiest issue for Bush and Putin to tackle. Far more difficult issues lie ahead, many of which will be addressed next week.
They include Bush's plan to create a missile defense system - which Russia is wary of - as well as Russia's selling of arms and exporting of nuclear technology to nations such as Iran, which has long raised the ire of the United States. In addition, Putin is desperate to court U.S. investors to give the Russian economy a boost and to gain U.S. support for Russian entry into the World Trade Organization.
Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.
U.S.-Russia arms agreements
President Bush announced yesterday that he will sign a treaty to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads.
START II: President George Bush and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin signed START II in January 1993. The treaty, which was to reduce nuclear arsenals to 3,000 to 3,500 warheads each, was ratified by the Senate in January 1996. Russia's parliament ratified it in 2000. It has yet to go into effect.
START I: In July 1991, Bush and Russian President Mikhail S. Gorbachev signed START I to cut nuclear warheads to 6,000. The agreement went into effect Dec. 5, 1994.
Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty: Signed by Bush and Gorbachev in November 1990, it set limits of 40,000 battle tanks, 60,000 armored combat vehicles, 40,000 pieces of artillery, 13,600 combat aircraft and 4,000 attack helicopters. The treaty was modified in 1999 to reduce those numbers by about half.
INF Treaty: Signed by President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev in December 1987, it banned intermediate-range nuclear missiles.