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Russia: Pentagon Announcement Betrays Less-Than-Noble U.S. Intentions

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia has reacted with skepticism to the U.S. Defense Department's recent policy review that advocates storing some decommissioned U.S. nuclear warheads instead of destroying them. The Russian Foreign Ministry says nuclear weapons reductions must be irreversible if they are to mean anything, and the Russian media have been questioning Washington's commitment to arms control.

Prague, 11 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Defense Department's announcement that it plans to store, but not destroy, some of the nuclear warheads it will be decommissioning over the next decade came as an unpleasant surprise in Moscow.

U.S. President George W. Bush, at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-November, announced a dramatic unilateral cut in the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 7,000 deployed nuclear warheads to just 2,200 within 10 years. Putin, for his part, said Russia would match the unprecedented gesture, meaning both countries would retain parity.

But the Pentagon's announcement that cutting warheads does not necessarily mean destroying them is being interpreted in Moscow as a signal that the United States is keen to maintain nuclear superiority, by less-than-honest means.

Aleksandr Goltz, an independent Russian defense analyst, tells RFE/RL this is because Washington knows Russia has no choice but to shrink its nuclear arsenal. The warheads Russia decommissions -- because of their age and Russia's lack of funds -- will necessarily be destroyed. If the United States, on the other hand, stores its decommissioned warheads, it will retain a strong numerical advantage.

"All experts know very well that Russia's nuclear potential would shrink naturally without any initiatives, proposals, or agreements," Goltz said. "The fact is that whether Russian generals want it or not, by the start of 2008, they will have to decommission 150 rockets which will have long outlived their natural life span. And each of those rockets houses 10 warheads. This means that Russia's nuclear potential, at the end of the present decade, will amount to 1,000 or 1,500 warheads, at best."

Goltz says there was quiet rejoicing in the Kremlin when Bush announced the planned cuts in November, as it was clear to both sides that America did not need to make such a gesture. It was interpreted as a sign that U.S.-Russian relations might be headed into a new era. But with its announcement this week, the Pentagon appears to have proven Russian cynics correct.

Commentator Aleksei Kiva, writing in today's issue of "Parlamentskaya Gazeta" -- the official parliamentary chronicle -- notes: "The United States must be taken for what it is. American political culture is such that its leaders may pronounce fine words and make generous promises while at the same time solely pursuing their own national interests."

Russia's disappointment could easily turn into a feeling of humiliation because, as Goltz says, America is calling the shots, there is very little Moscow can do, and both sides know it.

"Russia can discuss these problems with the United States and try to prove its reasoned stance, but the entire ideology of the present American administration is based on the idea that no agreements must be concluded with anyone, that America must always have freedom of action to counter any threat which presents itself in the future," Goltz said.

The U.S. and Russia are due to open talks on 15-16 January in Washington on how to go about reducing their nuclear arsenals. Both countries hope to sign a formal agreement on the issue in time for Bush's planned visit to Moscow this summer. But Goltz says it is now clear to the Russian administration that this agreement will fall far short of what Moscow had originally expected.

"There may be an agreement, but it's clear it won't be the type of agreement Moscow would like to see. That is to say, it will be some sort of joint declaration, but not an agreement like the START-1 and START-2 treaties with verification and control mechanisms, et cetera.... One can say that the slogan, 'Trust but verify,' which [former U.S. President Ronald] Reagan once pronounced, has now become Russia's mantra."

Yesterday's edition of the Russian military-establishment daily, "Krasnaya Zvezda" (Red Star), called the Pentagon announcement a "trial balloon" to gauge Russian official opinion. It also noted the United States may find a strategic use for decommissioned warheads in its planned missile-defense shield, which Moscow continues to oppose.

For its part, the Moscow daily "Vremya MN" says it appears the Pentagon is preparing public opinion at home and abroad for a renewal of nuclear tests, and it says America could soon lead the world into a new arms race.

Again, Goltz reaffirms a view held by most analysts in Russia that Washington's gushy friendliness toward Moscow was only driven by short-term strategic concerns: "I think the main problem is that the war in Afghanistan turned out to be much quicker and [more] successful than even the United States anticipated. Therefore, the value of Russia as an ally has diminished. And because of this, we are seeing all sorts of changes in U.S. policies."

From a broader perspective, the Pentagon announcement -- coupled with Washington's apparent interest in maintaining military bases in Central Asia -- as well as its recently renewed criticism of Moscow's policies in Chechnya, indicate to many Russians that the much-talked-about strategic alliance between Washington and Moscow is unlikely to develop.