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Obama backs up pledge to reduce nuclear arms

A year after his announcement in Prague, Obama returns to sign treaty with Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in New York, Sept. 23, 2009. The two will meet again Thursday in Prague to sign a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — During a speech at Prague Castle last year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an audacious idea to eventually rid the world of nuclear weapons. It was a goal, he said, not likely to be achieved in his lifetime.

A treaty signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague on Thursday, almost a year to the day, would trim the two power’s strategic nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in half a century.

The latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, calls for both sides to reduce their deployed nuclear weapons by 30 percent.

In a statement released Tuesday, Obama called the agreement “a significant step forward" that fulfills his pledge to "focus on reducing the nuclear dangers of the 21st century, while sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent for the United States and our allies and partners as long as nuclear weapons exist.”

The bilateral treaty not only substantially reduces the deployed nuclear arsenals of the world's two biggest nuclear powers, but is also intended to provide incentive for non-nuclear states — Iran and North Korea, in particular — to eschew the pursuit of nuclear weapons altogether.

While nuclear arms reduction is almost universally regarded as a positive development, right-wing pundits here, and across the former Soviet bloc, remain leery of the U.S. forming close ties with Russia. The president's visit has given him an opportunity to reassure America's allies in central and eastern Europe that the United States remains committed to the region's security.

And so Obama has invited the leaders of 11 central and east European countries (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia) to dinner Thursday to reassure them of America's commitment to regional security.

Right-wing Czech Senator Alexandr Vondra — who was a strident supporter of former President George W. Bush's missile defense plan for Europe, which included a radar base here, along with 10 interceptors in Poland — was furious when Obama announced last year that he would shelve the Bush plan.

What Obama says at dinner is less important than how NATO redefines its security strategy over the next eight months, according to Vondra.

“The real response will come later this year with the New Strategic Concept of NATO, and the reassurance of the alliance in Europe that NATO will remain strong and the U.S. will remain committed,” Vondra said.