US President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will sign a treaty next week to shrink their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds while allowing the United States to store rather than destroy some Cold War-era warheads.
"This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War," Bush said Monday in announcing the 10-year accord.
The treaty would limit the United States and Russia to 1,700 to 2,200 nuclear warheads apiece by 2012 - still enough to devastate major US and Russian cities many times over.
The United States now has about 6,000 strategic nuclear weapons, Russia about 5,500.
The treaty, which must be approved by the Senate, will be signed next week when Bush visits Putin in Moscow.
It will be shorter than usual - about three pages, compared with the inches-thick agreements of the past - and will give both nations wide latitude in deciding how to reduce their stockpiles. That flexibility brought questions from some about whether the pact would provide meaningful arms reduction.
The treaty would expire Dec. 31, 2012, but could be extended with both nations' approval.
"We are satisfied with the joint work," Putin said after Bush's announcement. "Without the interested, active position of the American administration and the attention of President Bush, it would have been difficult to reach such agreements."
Agreement on arms cuts is the lowest hurdle in US-Russian relations; both leaders were eager to trim weapons costs and cast themselves as peacemakers. Tougher issues remain, such as Bush's plans for an anti-missile system and Russia's spread of nuclear technology.
The White House predicted approval by the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate, though Democrats were raising questions.
The treaty "marks a step toward a safer world," said Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., chairman of the committee, welcomed the accord but said the panel will want to know whether the reductions are irreversible "or will most of the weapons be put in storage for later use? Will the reductions take place promptly? How will we be able to verify Russian compliance with the treaty's provisions?"
One provision pushed by Bush allows Washington and Moscow to make reductions as they see fit, meaning any number of warheads could be stored in case they are needed to replace aging weapons - or to respond to new threats. Technically, neither country is required to destroy a single warhead, a senior administration official told reporters at the White House.
Bush announced the agreement with no fanfare, stopping at a row of TV cameras as he left on a political trip to Illinois.
"It will make the world more peaceful," he said.
The US President will sign the treaty May 24 at the opening of a weeklong European trip that will conclude with a stop in Paris to watch NATO and Russia enter into a new alliance. Spokesman Ari Fleischer called the two events "the perfect bookends" to a presidential trip. Bush and Putin also plan to sign a "strategic framework" agreement outlining their post-Cold War ties.
The timing of Bush's announcement was a surprise, because most observers had expected him to wait for the Moscow summit to break the news.
But the deal itself was expected - a product of Bush's pledge as a presidential candidate two years ago to reduce US nuclear stockpiles regardless of Russia's intentions. He had hoped bolster his foreign policy credentials with American voters and ease concerns in Russia about his plans to develop an anti-missile shield.
Putin had suggested reductions to 1,500 warheads each, because his nation could no longer afford to maintain the Cold War-sized stockpiles.
One sticking point had been Russia's objections to US plans for storing some of the nuclear weapons rather than destroying them. The American position apparently prevailed; the senior administration official said some USs weapons will be destroyed, some put in "deep storage" and others will be stored but kept as "operational spares."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Russia also is likely to keep some weapons.
In Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters that Russia had not dropped its objections to the idea of stockpiling warheads. He did not elaborate.
In a victory for Putin, the president dropped his push for an informal agreement and will sign a treaty. He had hoped to avoid Senate consideration.
Verification procedures in the 1991 US-Russian Start I treaty - such as onsite inspections - will apply to the new deal, though they will not be spelled out in the treaty, the senior official said.
The United States and Russia have been headed down the nuclear-reduction road for a while.
Under the START II agreement with Russia, the nations' stockpiles would fall to between 3,000 and 3,500. In 1997, President Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin agreed in principle that a START III treaty should cut numbers to 2,000 to 2,500.
(China Daily May 14, 2002)