Why Obama's Russia Agreement Is a Big Deal

The U.S. and Russia have an undeniably storied past. There was the Cold War, of course, but relations since have only become slightly less tense. The nuclear arsenal of both countries has led to a begrudging acknowledgment of mutual existence, but friendship would be a far stretch. Even efforts to repair the relationship have been tepid. It's hard to forget the high-profile and embarrassing snafu when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a prop button that she thought said "reset" in Russian—but actually meant "overwhelm."

But this morning's call between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indeed signaled progress, but in a roundabout way. The purpose of the call was to agree to a new treaty between the two countries, one modeled on the original START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) that’s kept tension at bay since the early '90s. This one further reduces the number of usable nuclear weapons, down about 30 percent, and slashes ballistic-missile stockpiles and the bombers that drop nukes. "Such actions invigorate our mutual efforts to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime and convince other countries to help curb proliferation," said a readout of Obama's call.

The White House went to great lengths to spin this morning's announcement as an enormous step forward—that both countries making cuts to their arsenals makes the world a safer place. But, really, that's not why it was significant. In a cynical sense, even slashing the number of nukes by a third (if indeed that actually gets done) still leaves enormous stockpiles, enough to end civilization many times over. A colleague points out, along those lines, that if the two countries didn't sign an updated treaty to START, that would have been more significant.

No, the reason this morning's call and announcement was notable was because of the presentation, and what it said about the mutually agreed-upon thaw in relations. Both presidents' having an amicable public conversation, without obvious tension or resentment, hasn't happened between Russia and the U.S. for more than half a century. A friend of mine who's a journalist in Moscow summed it up best in an e-mail: "It's becoming clear that they both don't just need to find common ground anymore. This shows that now they might actually want to."