PRAGUE, Czech Republic, April 8 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev Thursday in Prague signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty the leaders hope will open a new chapter in relations between the former Cold War enemies.
The ceremony certainly lived up to the grand expectations: To fanfares, Obama and Medvedev walked into the majestic main hall in the Prague Castle, stood before the audience for a moment and then sat down next to each other at a gilded table to sign the treaty.
"When the United States and Russia are not able to work together on big issues, it's not good for either of our nations, nor is it good for the world," Obama said after the signing ceremony. "Together, we have stopped that drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation."
The president called the treaty "an important milestone for nuclear security and non-proliferation and for U.S.-Russia relations" that would set the stage for further arms cuts.
"While the New Start treaty is an important first step forward, it is just one step on a longer journey," he said in Prague, where a year ago he had called for a world without nuclear weapons. "Going forward, we hope to pursue discussions with Russia on reducing both our strategic and tactical weapons, including non-deployed weapons."
Medvedev hailed the new treaty as a win-win document for both powers, adding that it would open a new chapter in bilateral relations.
If ratified by lawmakers in both countries, the treaty will replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired last year.
The New Start treaty would require each country to limit the number of strategic warheads to 1,550 strategic warheads, down from 2,200; and the number of land-, air- and sea-based launchers to 800, down from 1,600.
Washington and Moscow had agreed to substantial cuts last year but differences on verification and missile defense delayed the treaty by several months. Both leaders late last Month in a telephone conversation ironed out the last difficulties and agreed on a date and place for the signing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week had warned that Moscow would drop out of the treaty if it believes U.S. missile defense plans for Europe threaten its security.
In an obvious bid to please Moscow, Washington last year shelved plans for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had pushed for the system to defend against possible Iranian nuclear missiles. But the architecture of the new system has not entirely convinced Russia, and the leaders vowed to talk about it.
Obama said in Prague that both powers would jointly assess the ballistic missile threat before then launching "a serious dialog about Russian-American cooperation on missile defense."
The successor to Start is a first measurable success for Obama's conciliatory Russia policy, criticized at home by Republicans and human-rights groups who say Washington is being silent regarding human-rights abuses by the former Cold War enemy.
Obama in Prague hailed Medvedev as a "friend and partner" who he respects, adding that "without his personal effort and strong leadership, we would not be here today."
U.S.-Russian relations suffered over the past years with differences ranging from human rights, the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo, NATO's eastward expansion, a U.S.-planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe and the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Obama has promised to shake up U.S. foreign policy by trying to improve ties with the Kremlin in a bid to get increased support from Russia in the conflict over Iran's controversial nuclear program.
Medvedev in Prague signaled support for Washington's plan to impose new sanctions on Iran, saying Tehran's flouting of the international community could not be ignored.
Iran insists it maintains a nuclear program for civilian purposes, but the West suspects it of trying to build a nuclear weapon.