U.S.-Russia Nuke Treaty: Small Step on a Long Road

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Dmitri Astakhov / ITAR-TASS Photo / Corbis

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in front of an RS-12M Topol intercontinental ballistic missile in Russia's Arkhangelsk region

The good news is that the U.S. and Russia agreed on March 26 to significant cuts in their active long-range nuclear arsenals. The bad news remains the same: if they were to fire even a portion of their remaining arsenals at each other, over a matter of minutes you, your family and every person on this planet would face death by atomic fireball, radiation poisoning or eventual starvation from the ensuing nuclear winter.

Discussion of such nightmare scenarios may have gone out of fashion with the end of the Cold War, but the fact that Washington and Moscow maintain thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert explains why even the modest successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that was agreed on last week proved so elusive. And it also serves as a reminder of how dauntingly difficult it will be to achieve cuts deep enough to remove what President John F. Kennedy once called "Damocles' sword" hanging over humanity.

According to the White House, the START follow-on will cut deployed warheads — those mounted on intercontinental missiles or bombers — to 1,550 for each side, which is about 30% below current levels. The total number of missiles and bombers available for launch at any given time will be cut to 700, less than half of current levels. That still leaves more than enough firepower to destroy the infrastructure and war-fighting capacity of both nations many times over. What's more, the treaty focuses only on deployed warheads, and does not limit the amount of warheads, missiles and bombers that either side may keep in storage. Nor does it address the thousands of shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons on each side, or U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe, which the Russians fear may render portions of their deterrent obsolete and tip the nuclear balance of terror in favor of the Americans.

The treaty was adopted, essentially unchanged, from one discussed in April last year, despite months of delays that involved around 40 high-level meetings between arms negotiators and 14 conversations between President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Agreement proved elusive because the treaty is based on the Cold War assumption that each side should seek to balance the destructive potential of its own arsenal precisely against that of the other. That has prompted some arms-control experts to suggest that Obama should focus on making further unilateral cuts to America's nuclear arsenal before seeking further symmetrical reductions. Such a move, they say, would foster trust and allow more rapid progress without changing the principle of mutually assured destruction that has, for more than half a century, deterred either side from initiating a nuclear war.

"START reintroduced nuclear parity as a central element of U.S. and Russian strategic relations," says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. "Both countries have to be careful that it doesn't lock them into strategic postures that are too dependent on the other side."

Unilateralism was once seen by defense experts as naive pacifism. But Kristensen notes that the U.S. was unilaterally cutting back its nuclear deployments throughout the Bush Administration's tenure. The U.S. Air Force removed half of its tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe between 2000 and 2009 without any reciprocal action required of Russia. The U.S. also voluntarily reduced its deployed strategic weapons below a 2002 treaty limit 3½ years before it was required to do so. "There are plenty of other ripe apples to pluck," he says. "The U.S. could probably go to 500 weapons tomorrow without any negative consequences for U.S. national security or that of its allies."

The biggest obstacle to further unilateral cuts may lie not in Russian missile silos, but in the U.S. Congress. Republicans have already expressed concern that the Obama Administration seeks to undermine the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Last December, Senate Republicans signed a letter warning that they would not ratify a new START agreement until Obama pledged to "modernize" the U.S. nuclear arsenal — shorthand for a Republican-supported plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. Many disarmament advocates are no longer expecting dramatic cuts to be proposed in Obama's nuclear-posture review, which is due in April. Dramatic unilateral reductions would only deepen Republican resistance and make ratification of further nuclear treaties more difficult.

Despite the political limits, even modest informal arrangements and other confidence-building measures "would help facilitate progress in future, formal nuclear talks," says Steve Andreasen, a former director for arms control on the National Security Council and now a lecturer at the University of Minnesota. But, along with Kristensen, Andreasen points out that verification procedures are crucial to the success of any significant cuts to nuclear arsenals — and those procedures must be agreed on by both countries in advance. The greatest obstacle to the arms-control progress may be convincing decision makers on both sides that banishing the ghosts of the Cold War should be an urgent priority, and that it is no longer acceptable to live in a world with thousands of thermonuclear weapons primed and ready to launch. As Andreasen says, "The key to deep cuts is not deep control treaties; rather, it is to deepen and widen the consensus that our security will be enhanced by further reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security policies. The new START agreement is one step in that process — but many more, and more urgent, steps are needed."