US and Russia talking again, truly a good start

Posted: Thursday, July 09, 2009

Progress on reducing strategic nuclear arms is big news out of the Russian-American summit conference, but overshadowed side agreements are true windows on improving relations.

Russian and U.S. negotiators met through the spring to produce what is essentially a statement of intent on nuclear weapons. President Obama and President Medvedev agreed to further talks aimed at limiting each other's arsenal of warheads to 1,675, down from a ceiling of 2,200, set to take effect in 2012. Missiles to deliver them would be cut to 1,100 from the 1,600 currently permissible.

Timelines for the reductions would be stretched four years. Systems for mutual inspections would also be improved, in the spirit of President Reagan's dictum, "Trust, but verify."

Talks in Moscow began with an eye toward the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in December, but they also reflect an interest in diplomacy. Talking. Staying in touch. Avoiding dangerous assumptions.

Best friends forever? Not likely, but the U.S. and Russia cannot sell nuclear nonproliferation to other nations without leading by example.

Stronger ties between the old Cold War adversaries also sends a message to other geopolitical players not to bother trying to create or exploit tensions between Washington and Moscow.

The military chiefs of the two countries agreed to resume bilateral contacts and raise levels of military cooperation.

They are looking to professional exchanges, including between their elite at service academics, and other confidence-building measures. A joint exercise is planned around a scenario of a hijacked aircraft.

A second agreement gets to practical working relationships. Russia will open its sovereign airspace to U.S. military transports moving troops and critical equipment to American and international forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. had some access through an arrangement over NATO's signature, but this is directly between the two countries. New routes are estimated to save $133 million annually in fuel and transportation costs.

For all the welcome potential of nuclear-arms reductions, the news out of Moscow is about communications and transparency. Considering the history, good news indeed.

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