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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin and Bush Sign Off on Treaty of Moscow

In a day devoted to celebrating what U.S. President George W. Bush called "an entirely new relationship" with Russia, he and President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty on Friday to commit their nations to the most dramatic nuclear cuts in decades, while both men tried to smooth over a disagreement about continued Russian exports of nuclear technology to Iran.

The three-page Treaty of Moscow was signed early Friday afternoon inside the Kremlin to end what Bush called "a long chapter of confrontation."

While that confrontation has steadily eased since the Soviet empire began to unravel in 1989, the accord cleared the way for what Bush and Putin hailed as a new era of cooperation focused on counterterrorism, nonproliferation, trade and Russia's new relationship with NATO.

The treaty commits both countries to reduce their arsenals, now about 6,000 warheads each, to no more than 2,200 at the end of 2012. But after that day the treaty expires, meaning that either country would be free to rearm starting the next year unless the agreement was extended or amended. Critics of the accord argue that it will leave Russia with a large supply of deactivated warheads that could fall into the hands of terrorists if they are not sufficiently guarded and that it frees the United States to stockpile warheads easily reattachable to missiles.

The accord was signed almost exactly 30 years after Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first of the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties here. Bush said he had come to end that era, and his national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, said the accord should not be considered the first Russian-American treaty of the 21st century but "the last treaty of the last century."

Nonetheless, either country can exit the treaty with only three months' notice, and when asked Friday why it was necessary to keep 2,000 nuclear weapons loaded atop missiles, Bush made it clear that the future was as unpredictable as the Soviet Union's end a decade ago.

"Friends really don't need weapons pointed at each other, we both understand that," Bush acknowledged. "But it's a realistic assessment of where we've been. Who knows what will happen 10 years from now? Who knows what future presidents will say and how they'll react?"

It was just for that reason that Putin insisted on a formal treaty, rather than what Bush first proposed, a informal agreement between two presidents. But as Secretary of State Colin Powell noted recently, the Senate also demanded a treaty, so that it would be able to review the nuclear cuts. Both the Senate and the Duma are expected to ratify the treaty, but Bush made no predictions Friday about how long that would take.

He also defended the administration's decision to warehouse many of its warheads as a "quality control" measure. "If you have a nuclear arsenal, you want to make sure that they work," he said.

Putin added: "Out there, there are other states that possess nuclear arms. There are countries that want to acquire weapons of mass destruction." Neither country mentioned China, the other nuclear superpower.

The two leaders' efforts to cement the unpredicted partnership they have developed over the past year hit one sour note: a clear difference of opinion about Russia's continued sale of its nuclear expertise to Iran, one of the countries Bush has identified as a member of the "axis of evil."

Bush told reporters, "We spoke very frankly and honestly" about the need to make sure "a nontransparent government run by radical clerics doesn't get their hands on weapons of mass destruction."

But Putin immediately responded that cooperation between Iran and Russia was not "of a character that would undermine the process on nonproliferation." He said Russia's aid was entirely focused on nuclear energy projects, which the Bush administration says are unnecessary in an oil-rich nation.

Putin then threw the issue back to Bush, noting that "we have some questions concerning development of missile programs in Taiwan," which receives American technological aid, and said that "the U.S. has taken a commitment upon themselves to build similar nuclear power plants in North Korea." This was a reference to a 1994 accord in which the United States committed to helping North Korea build two "proliferation-resistant" nuclear power plants, but only after it allows further international inspection of its suspected nuclear sites, something Iran has resisted.

A senior administration official said that Putin had privately assured Bush that "they are not now, nor would they do anything to contribute to the Iranian military nuclear program or ballistic missile program."

On Saturday, Powell said the White House and the Kremlin had essentially agreed to disagree.

But Russian experts also argued that they not only are just as sensitive to proliferation problems as Americans, but are politically closer to Iran and so better able to gauge the extent of those problems, Powell said.

In the flurry of side agreements, Bush and Putin inaugurated a "joint experts group" to develop a plan within six months to destroy or convert for commercial use Russia's large stockpile of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

Russia is estimated to have 1,000 tons of such material, and there is considerable debate over how well protected it is.

The U.S. intelligence agencies have warned of the danger that the material could fall into the hands of terrorists, or that underpaid Russian nuclear scientists could divert some of the material to a rogue state or terrorist group. In news conferences and interviews, Bush and his aides have not seemed extremely concerned by the prospect, insisting that they have received assurances about Russia's nuclear security.