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Prague Signing: Strategic Arms Milestone

  • April 8th, 2010
  • Posted by 7thmin

prague-studyabroad-msu.jpgCOMMENTARY: With the Prague Treaty this week, Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia were picking up where their predecessors left off in 1991 –  signing on to unprecedented reductions in nuclear arms.


The signing of the START 1 Treaty at Moscow in July 1991 marked the climax of a famous “arms race in reverse” which had seen a reform-minded, and failing, Soviet Union embarrass the Americans with offers of concessions.

Things had not started off so promisingly for peace when the Reagan administration, in 1986, cancelled an earlier Strategic Arms Limitation agreement, charging the USSR with not sticking to its terms.

Since 1969, off-and-on thaws in the Cold War chill had seen agreements on stocks of ballistic missile and other carriers, and nuclear warheads, but the arsenals remained heavily over-stocked.

Mutually Assured Destruction was given up as a doctrine but stayed on as  day-by-day reality.


Then suddenly things turned around.

President Ronald Reagan (1980-88) the rigorous anti-communist became the unlikely agent of a much greater thaw, due to events in Russia, and the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader.

Soviet diplomacy changed to an ameliorating stance, meeting the demands of cautious, suspicious, often stunned American diplomats (struggling to the last to stay in a suspicious and hard-headed mode), with concessions on sore issues like verification arrangements for compliance with agreements.

In 1987 the two sides were able to conclude an Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), removing nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles in that category (500-5000 km range).

It ended a severe rupture in relations in Europe that took place in the early 1980s, with a build-up of arsenals, involving the allies — and resurgence of peace activism in a frightened Western world.


Gorbachev’s program of glasnost (openness and publicity in relations), and perestroika (cleaning out the state), and the collapsing state of the economy, required both money from the West, and relief from gross over-spending on defence.

So, Foreign Ministers’ meetings would see the Soviet representative, Eduard Shevardnadze, surprise his US counterpart, George Schultz, Secretary of State, with proposals for resuming active reductions in strategic stockpiles.

That was in the lead-up to the May-June 1988 summit of the two leaders at Moscow.

That week produced moments to foreshadow the symbolism of the opening of the Berlin  Wall at he end of the following year.

Gorbachev with cameras present raised the old Reagan gybe about the “Evil Empire”; did he still see it that way?

“Oh, nooo”, came the off-guard reply.


George H. Bush, the next President, reaped the prize of the end of the Cold War, conferring with Gorbachev about future relations, on board warships, in very bad Winter weather, off Malta, just after the fall of the Wall (9.11.89).

The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START 1, was the “peace dividend” spoken of often by Bush; the stumbling US economy at that time might enjoy some lightening of the military burden – an easing of the heavy war spending of the Reagan years.

Permitted levels of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads were cut from 10,000 per side to 6,000 per side; other imbalances remained but the grand treaty put a cap on the arms race through to the end of its agreed life, last January.

A follow-up START 2 treaty was signed by America and the Russian Federation, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in 1993 – authorising almost 50% reductions in the numbers agreed on two years before.


This week in Prague, START 3 (8.4.10) was intended to see the number of nuclear warheads reduced to 1550, with similar caps on launchers — ballistic and intercontinental missile launchers, submarine-launchers and Air Force bombers. It concentrated on deployed weapons, leaving other stockpiles for future deiscussions.

After the signing at Prague Castle, Obama was scheduled to meet leaders of eleven Central and Eastern European states.

The build-up to this new agreement saw spats over the unresolved issue of American anti-missile defences, not set up against Russia but designated to be based partly on former Warsaw Pact territory – in  Poland.

obama-wikimediaorg-reduced1.jpgPresident Obama wants the signing to back up his campaign for thorough-going world disarmament, proclaimed on a visit to the Czech Republic a year ago; the document will need to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries.

The week sets off a disarmament season with world heads of government set to confer on nuclear security in Washington next week, and a review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty itself, in May.


Already, the United States declared unilaterally on Wednesday  (7.4.10) a fresh Nuclear Posture review, saying it would not be provoked to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear country, if that country had signed the world Nuclear Non-proliferation agreement.

Nuclear Posture Reviews have taken into consideration acts such as the use of chemical weapons or terrorist nuclear devices against American targets.

This week’s update pointedly allowed for the treatment of some states, e.g. Iran and North Korea, as outsiders to the provisions; no surprise.

Citizens of very obvious qualifiers like Australia may be pondering the significance of the gesture, not in their wildest dreams having seriously anticipated an American attack in the present Century.


AFP, Paris, “The US and Russian presidents will meet in Prague tomorrow to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament treaty …”, 7.4.10.

Department of State, Washington, “CRS Report to Congress: US Nuclear Weapons – Changes in policy and force numbers”, Order Code RL31623, 23.1.08.

Physics Today, American Institute of Physics, Melville NY, “Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review”, 7.4.10.

Wipedia, Wikipedia Foundation SF, START 1.


Prague Castle (studyabroad=msu); Obama (wikipedia)


book.jpgLee Duffield covered the disarmament negotiations in Europe as a correspondent for Australian ABC in the 1980s and 1990s; he is the author of  Berlin Wall in the News: Mass media and the fall of the Eastern Bloc in Europe – 1989; Saarbrucken, VDM, 2009. (See