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U.S./Russia: Arms Pact Could Undermine Nonproliferation Effort

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The U.S. and Russia have hailed their recent arms-control pact as a leap forward in relations. But some analysts are criticizing aspects of the pact. They say lowering the number of nuclear warheads is good, but allowing both countries to stockpile unused warheads is potentially dangerous.

Paris, 27 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The new Treaty of Moscow is being hailed by officials as a leap forward in U.S.-Russian nuclear-arms control.

The three-page pact, signed by presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on 24 May, commits both sides to reducing their deployed strategic arsenals by some two-thirds over the next 10 years, to between 1,700 and 2,200 strategic warheads.

This reduction is widely considered positive. But some analysts are doubting the agreement will effectively deal with what many see as the main threat to security today. They say the main danger is not so much the Russian and American arsenals, but that terrorists could obtain nuclear or chemical materials to build their own weapons.

That danger was highlighted last week in the United States, where a study by Harvard University and a separate report by the Federation of American Scientists urged Bush and Putin to adopt measures to keep nuclear fuels out of the reach of terrorists.

As an example of the threat, the Harvard report cited an incident in Georgia where, a couple of years after independence, Abkhaz separatists made off with 2 kilograms of enriched, bomb-grade uranium from a nuclear power facility. To this day, no one knows what happened to it.

Rose Gottemoeller, a top U.S. expert on nuclear nonproliferation, said the world has a new appreciation of this danger.

"This, too, is a new area that has caught people's attention in the wake of 11 September -- the 'dirty-bomb' threat, the threat that [radioactive] materials of a range of types and dangers to the population could be launched on U.S., or indeed Russian, territory or the territory of any other country."

But last week's arms-control agreement, ironically, will allow many nuclear warheads to remain in existence -- and thus potentially be misused. The treaty allows both countries to store decommissioned warheads rather than destroy them.

The U.S. says it needs to do this to remain "flexible" in its future security posture.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have insisted no arms-control treaty has ever stipulated warhead destruction. Analysts, however, point to the START III treaty, whose outline was agreed upon by presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1997. That treaty, had it been signed and ratified, would have slashed strategic warheads roughly to the levels Bush and Putin agreed on, but would have required they be destroyed, not stored.

Six months after the Start III framework was signed, a white paper by the U.S. Strategic Command -- which controls U.S. nuclear weapons -- concluded that "warhead elimination must be the centerpiece of post-START II arms control, and should come before further force-structure reductions occur."

Jon Wolfsthal, an analyst with Carnegie's Nonproliferation Program, said the new treaty amounts to essentially far less than what Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to. And, what's more, he said Russia will be tempted to store some of its warheads as well, which will only open the door to dangerous possibilities.

"By leading the Russians down this path, we actually increase the risk that a future adversary will be armed with nuclear weapons or that a terrorist will be able to acquire nuclear [materials]," Wolfsthal said.

Bush and Putin also signed an agreement on counterterrorism that commits them to joint efforts to prevent the spread of technologies for weapons of mass destruction. U.S. and Russian scientists are to meet next month to develop the technology to detect nuclear material that can be used to manufacture weapons for terrorism purposes.

Gottemoeller said the agreement is unprecedented: "I think this is the first time that I know of that priorities for a threat-reduction effort of this kind are being set, from the outset, together by the United States and Russia. And I think that will be a very positive change in how we have pursued these kinds of programs historically."

Powell acknowledged U.S. officials have major concerns about the possibility of militants getting their hands on arms technologies in Russia, which senior U.S. Senator Joseph Biden calls "a candy store for terrorists."

The U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year since the early 1990s on "Nunn-Lugar" programs, aimed at reducing the proliferation threat from the Soviet Union's weapons legacy. But despite those programs, Powell said the U.S. remains in the dark about much of what's left from the Soviet era.

Powell said the new pledge on joint counterterrorism cooperation will require Russia to open up. "We want to have a broader dialogue with them to get a better understanding of what they have done over the years, what they have produced over the years, how can we be more effective in capturing that material -- recycling it under solid accountability -- so that the whole world can be more comfortable."

Notably, Bush and Putin disagreed over U.S. opposition to Russian nuclear-technology transfers to Iran, in particular, Moscow's assistance in building an Iranian nuclear power plant. Washington says Tehran is the world's leading sponsor of terrorism and that the plant could help it develop nuclear arms. The U.S. says Iran is also seeking ballistic missiles to deliver nuclear weapons to places as far away as America, with which it has not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But regarding Iran, Putin publicly turned the tables on Bush.

At the treaty-signing ceremony in Moscow, Putin said Western firms provide the technology for Tehran's nuclear efforts and that the U.S. has agreed to build a similar nuclear power plant in North Korea, as part of a deal to keep Pyongyang from building ballistic missiles. Bush has said North Korea, Iran, and Iraq comprise an "axis of evil."

Powell, addressing reporters in St. Petersburg on 25 May, said there was at least one positive aspect of the dispute over Iran. "The good news is that we've had candid discussions about this, and I hope we'll be able to solve this going forward, just as we have solved some of the other difficult issues that we have faced over the past year."