While President Bush argues that terrorism, not Russia, is the gravest threat to U.S. security, it was his Administration that thwarted Russia's desire for both sides to destroy the nuclear warheads that are to be taken off alert under the new accord. As long as the U.S. insists on keeping some of those weapons intact to face future threats, Russia is likely to follow suit. That means even more nuclear weapons retired but still potent will be crammed into the more than 300 buildings in Russia now holding the Holy Grail of terrorists: atomic warheads or the fissile material critical to building them. "Our greatest danger now isn't that Russia is going to attack the U.S. with nuclear missiles," says Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's that some group is going to get its hands on the growing number of nuclear warheads stored in less-than-secure conditions in Russia."
Dismantling the weapons isn't necessarily safer, argues Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information and an expert on Moscow's nuclear policy. He says the Russian military, which presumably will continue watching over stored warheads, provides better security than the civilian agency that oversees warhead disassembly. Of course, better doesn't mean good. In a little-noticed report sent to Congress in February, the National Intelligence Council, an umbrella panel representing U.S. spy agencies, detailed the threat posed by stored Russian nuclear weapons. Poverty is rampant among Russian nuclear-weapons guards, it noted. Many are homeless, and some have conducted hunger strikes because they have not been paid. Guards sometimes abandon their posts, and at one location an alarm system works only half the time. Russia's nuclear security, the report concluded, "may not be sufficient to meet today's challenge of a knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist group." The Bush Administration's response? Conditions can only get better, officials say, as the U.S. continues to invest $1 billion annually in improving Russia's nuclear warehouses.