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U.S./Russia: Analysts See Arms Treaty As Driven By U.S. Unilateralism

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush announced on Monday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin will sign a treaty to cut their strategic nuclear arsenals by two-thirds at a summit in Russia later this month. But analysts wonder if mutual security will really be improved by a deal that provides for far less than Putin had hoped.

Washington, 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia didn't give in to U.S. demands on nuclear-arms cuts simply because it can't keep up with the American military machine. It gave in because Washington would have done what it wanted with its nuclear arsenal regardless of Russian concerns.

That, at least, was the one assessment that U.S. analysts on both the right and left shared when they debated the newly announced arms-control deal between Russia and the United States yesterday.

On Monday, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin will sign a treaty to cut offensive nuclear arsenals by two-thirds when they meet at a summit in Moscow and St. Petersburg from May 23-26.

Bush said the pact, which followed months of tough talks during which the Russian side repeatedly saw its requests fall on deaf American ears, would "liquidate the legacy of the Cold War."

But some analysts beg to differ. They say despite the reduction from roughly 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads apiece to between 1,700 and 2,200, both countries will still possess the unique capability they achieved during the Cold War: to annihilate each other several times over.

Joseph Cirincione, the director of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, said: "When President Bush and President Putin shake hands on this deal in Moscow, the [U.S. nuclear] strategic command will be targeting Putin's office. It remains in the target base."

Cirincione, like other moderate and liberal American analysts, said the announced agreement represents a "missed opportunity" to enhance the security of both countries, as well as to further solidify the improved ties that developed after Putin backed the U.S.-led war on terrorism last fall.

Cirincione said that because of economic constraints, Putin was willing to sign a treaty pledging deeper, faster, and more permanent cuts in arsenals. Moscow also sought to destroy the warheads, but the U.S. insisted they be stored in "deep freeze" for use in emergencies. Cirincione said that regardless of the pact, 10 years from now the U.S. will still have nearly 10,000 warheads in its arsenal.

"In effect, the Russians served up their nuclear-weapons arsenals on a platter for [the United States] -- and [the United States] couldn't take 'yes' for an answer," Cirincione said.

But the proliferation of nuclear materials -- considered as a key threat to U.S. security following the terrorist attacks of last September -- is Cirincione's most pressing concern. And it is here he said the treaty simply doesn't add up.

Although the three-page pact has yet to be made public, Cirincione believes it will not deal with tactical nuclear arms. He said Russia enjoys a large numerical superiority in this area and that U.S. experts don't know how many tactical warheads Moscow has -- whether it's 5,000 or 15,000.

And a key issue that could have answered that question -- a mechanism for ensuring transparency -- is not even mentioned in the treaty, Cirincione told a roundtable discussion on the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit at his group's Washington headquarters.

The treaty, which will require approval from the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma to be brought into force, reportedly stipulates that each country can decide how to reduce its weapons over the next 10 years. The treaty also expires in 2012 and can be withdrawn from with prior notice of three months.

U.S. officials maintain that the Pentagon will retain "maximum flexibility" from the treaty, but Cirincione disagreed on the need for so many weapons of mass destruction still pointed at a country that is no longer considered an enemy.

"They successfully have sucked most of the substance out of this agreement, so we have what I think of as 'legally binding mush,'" Cirincione said.

But both Cirincione and his Carnegie colleague, Rose Gottemoeller, agree that Putin needed a formal deal with the U.S. to boost his domestic political stature, and that he had little bargaining power to sway a Washington clearly bent for some time on going its own way on security issues.

And Gottemoeller -- who was the lead U.S. official in overseeing the removal of nuclear arms from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in the early 1990s -- said this treaty is better than no treaty for Putin. She said that, at the very least, the treaty will provide for implementation measures such as site inspections, monitoring, and data exchange that will lay an important foundation for the U.S.-Russian cooperative security relationship over the next decade.

Gottemoeller also said the Bush team told the Russians it will not bring into force past arms-control agreements that ban multiple warheads on intercontinental ballistic weapons. She said Russia, out of financial considerations, may not opt to deploy such warheads, but the option is now open and the precedent set for a "circular game" to be played if both sides take this route.

And like Cirincione, Gottemoeller is concerned about the way Bush announced the deal -- informally to reporters while walking to his helicopter. She said it suggests that all his pronouncements about U.S.-Russian rapprochement may be insincere.

"If he had really felt that he wanted to help out Putin politically, he would have rolled it out in a way that it could have been done as a joint action, as a partnership action, rather than a kind of off-the-cuff statement on the way to his helicopter," Gottemoeller said.

But some conservative members of Bush's Republican Party had argued against signing any treaty, saying such a deal was unneeded by the world's sole superpower.

The Bush administration, since taking office in January 2001, has insisted that it would take unilateral actions in the security sphere. Its first major step in that direction came earlier this year when it announced that it would unilaterally pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Although the Russians said that treaty had been the cornerstone of international security for 30 years, Washington argued that it was a Cold War relic that was preventing it from developing a nuclear missile-defense system that America needed even more after the destruction of 11 September.

The idea that Russia is no longer an enemy -- just another country to do business with -- and that America will now act unilaterally in the security realm was articulated by Richard Perle, a key Pentagon adviser and former assistant secretary of defense.

Perle, a leading advocate of taking preemptive military action against Iraq, told a political discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that America's enemies are completely different today from during the Cold War.

"I think that decisions about the nature, size, [and] composition of our nuclear force should be driven by considerations that have little or nothing to do with the size, nature, or composition of the Russian force. It no longer makes sense to think of them in relation to one another," Perle said.

Indeed, in the wake of the September attacks, there is growing concern in America that despite the war on terrorism, the country remains vulnerable to another attack -- perhaps even with a radiological "dirty bomb" built by terrorists with fissile military technology somehow acquired in Russia.

A new movie to be released this week written by spy novelist Tom Clancy, called "The Sum of All Fears," tells of terrorists detonating a nuclear bomb near the Super Bowl American football championship in the eastern city of Baltimore, just north of Washington.

Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state, is head of a group called the Nuclear Threat Reduction Campaign. Inderfurth told the roundtable at Carnegie that he believes such a scenario is plausible.

"There is no question that if [Osama] bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had the opportunity to get a nuclear bomb, place it in the center of Manhattan or Washington or wherever, they would do it. And we've got to take steps, working with the Russians to secure their arsenals so that one very dramatic source of possible nuclear materials is choked off," Inderfurth said.

But according to Jon Wolfsthal, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment's nonproliferation project, that danger may now become even greater as a direct result of U.S. demands that the new treaty allow for the storage, but not destruction, of nuclear arms. Wolfsthal fears that fissile material stored unsafely or improperly in Russia could wind up in terrorists' hands.

"The only good nuclear weapon is a dead nuclear weapon. That's where there's a gaping hole in this agreement," Wolfsthal said.

However, all of the analysts said they believe the treaty is a positive step, even if they wonder whether the Bush administration will follow it up with further efforts to cut arms and combat nonproliferation.

Yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that it will. Though the treaty will stipulate the destruction of only some warheads, Fleischer said the Bush administration will also push U.S. programs that seek to safeguard nuclear materials in Russia, such as the program named after former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar.

"We will continue to work with Russia through the Nunn-Lugar program and other programs that we have to ensure that the safekeeping of Russian weaponry is maintained no matter what the status of the warhead," Fleischer said.

Putin and Bush are also expected at the summit to produce a document on another arms-control issue: Bush's plans to test and develop a national missile defense. Though that issue has divided the leaders in the past, Inderfurth said he believes the U.S. may be willing to work with Russia on missile defense, and perhaps even on developing a shield together.

Inderfurth said that far from being a point of contention, missile-defense cooperation could become a keystone of the new U.S.-Russian strategic framework. And if that happens, he said, the Cold War and its crowning document, the ABM Treaty, will truly have been surpassed.