White House downplays Russia's exit from arms reduction effort

Moscow announced on Wednesday it was walking away from the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program after nearly two decades of involvement in the effort. 

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The program, drafted by Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) in 1991, was designed to help Russia secure and dismantle its vast nuclear, chemical and biological weapon stockpiles after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The decision came as a surprise to many in Washington, including Lugar, who is the current ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

"The Russian government indicated a desire to make changes to the Nunn-Lugar ... agreement," the Indiana lawmaker said in a statement Wednesday.  

"At no time did officials indicate that, at this stage of negotiation, they were intent on ending it, only amending it," Lugar noted. 

Deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest reiterated Lugar's comments on Thursday, telling reporters the bilateral arms reduction plan continues to be "a valuable program [that] has been beneficial for the United States' national security."

"There's surely more work to be done in that program, and we're going to engage in that effort," he said during a briefing aboard Air Force One. "We found the Russians to be good partners on these issues".

Earnest alluded to the fact the Russian pullout may be Moscow's way of gaining the upper hand in negotiations to update the arms reduction pact. 

"The Russians didn't want to actually end the program ... they wanted to update the program," he said. "That's certainly something [the White House] will work with them to do." 

But to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Moscow's departure was a sign of things to come in future U.S.-Russian relations should President Obama secure a second term. 

"They do not percieve [the United States] to be strong," Romney foreign policy adviser Dov Zakheim said. 

The U.S. deal to open the Northern Distribution Routes into Afghanistan, which run through former Soviet satellite states in Central Europe, was one example of the possible cooperation with Russia can happen, he told reporters on Thursday. 

But he said that kind of dialogue cannot happen unless the U.S. is negotiating from a position of strength, and according to Zakheim, America has forfeited that position under Obama.

"We are not in a position to move these guys," Zakheim said, adding the talks leading up to Moscow's decision to pull out of the arms reduction pact were "a complete disaster."

A Romney presidency, according to Zakheimm, would have the resolve to force Russia back to the negotiation table on a number of national security issues — from the growing Syrian crisis to Iran's nuclear enrichment program, Zakheim said.

"You can work with [Russia] ... its just a matter of how you come across," he added. 

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