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U.S./Russia: U.S. Senators Question Parts Of Nuclear Treaty With Moscow

It took only six months for the United States and Russia to draft and sign a treaty that will drastically reduce the number of their deployed nuclear warheads. But the treaty cannot go into effect until the U.S. Senate ratifies it. On 9 July, Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to answer questions about the pact. As RFE/RL reports, the senators expressed concern and even skepticism about some of its provisions.

Washington, 10 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee closely questioned Secretary of State Colin Powell on 9 July about the Moscow Treaty, under which the United States and Russia would dramatically reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads.

The treaty came into being quickly. It was announced last November when Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Washington for a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush. It was signed two months ago in Moscow -- hence its name.

Under its terms, the United States and Russia would dramatically reduce the number of their nuclear weapons by two-thirds over the next 10 years. By then, each nation would have between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed warheads.

The speed with which the agreement was reached indicates an atmosphere of cooperation between Washington and Moscow. In his opening statement before the committee, Powell urged quick ratification of the treaty. "The Moscow Treaty will enhance the national security of both countries, and I strongly recommend that the Senate give its advice and consent to its ratification at the earliest possible date."

Powell said the pact reflects both nations' desire to make deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals, as well as the new relationship between former enemies. He said it will help the two countries change their relationship from strategic rivals to strategic partners.

Under the U.S. Constitution, no international treaty signed by a president can go into effect until it is ratified by the Senate. In the past, the Senate has withheld its approval of pacts of which it was suspicious. For example, the Senate stopped President Woodrow Wilson's effort to have the United States join the League of Nations after World War I. Similarly, it stopped former President Bill Clinton's effort to have the country join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.

On 9 July, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and other senators welcomed Powell warmly. But as soon as the secretary finished his opening statement, some began expressing concern and even skepticism about the Moscow Treaty. These senators agreed that it probably would reduce the risk of nuclear war with Russia, America's old enemy. But they also said it could increase the risk that undeployed and undestroyed nuclear warheads from the Russian arsenal might fall into the hands of terrorist groups or nations such as Iraq or North Korea, which the Bush administration calls "rogue states."

The committee's chairman, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), and the panel's vice chairman, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), praised the thrust of the treaty, but they cited flaws, particularly the lack of a provision requiring both the United States and Russia to destroy the warheads that are decommissioned.

In his opening remarks, Powell said the U.S. will destroy many of the decommissioned warheads. The secretary said Washington is not likely to want to re-commission any of the weapons removed from missiles or bombers, and he added that Russia is likely to feel the same way.

This was not reassuring to Lugar, who said he preferred language in the treaty requiring verification that decommissioned warheads are either destroyed or stored where they cannot be stolen by unscrupulous Russian scientists or military officials and sold to the highest bidder. "In the rhetoric, at least of the Moscow summit, you're talking about the fact that we were prepared to do these things unilaterally without verification, really, of what the Russians were doing. That was their problem [responsibility]."

Lugar's comments were echoed by another senator, John Kerry (D-Massachusetts). He said that the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States showed that it is essential Russia's nuclear weapons are not accessible to terrorists. "There is a nonverifiable destruction process which, in the absence of the support that Senator Lugar is talking about, merely increases the capacity for materials to fall into the hands of terrorists."

Powell replied that the treaty contains no verification provisions because the United States and Russia are no longer enemies and therefore no verification is called for. He also pointed out that no previous treaty with the Soviet Union had language requiring the destruction of warheads, so the Moscow Treaty does not require it, either.

The secretary said the pact does not include safeguarding decommissioned warheads from terrorists or so-called "rogue" states because that issue is being addressed by programs under which the United States has spent millions of dollars since 1992, helping Russia keep the weapons safe.

Powell acknowledged that Russia has not always been as cooperative as it might have been in making sure its decommissioned nuclear weapons are safe. But he stressed that is no reason to fault the Moscow Treaty or similar arms agreements. "The Russians have been part of the problem in terms of giving us what we need to know and to have in order to help them with this problem. But I don't think it takes anything away from the value of this treaty or other treaties."

On another front, Biden, the committee's chairman, said the Bush administration should make sure that the treaty does not limit itself to reductions in strategic nuclear weapons. He said the pact also should have included cuts in lower-yield battlefield nuclear weapons, known as "tactical" weapons. He said Russia now has between 2,000 and 10,000 such weapons.

Despite the misgivings of some senators, the questioning of Powell was cordial. And Lugar said he expected that the full Senate will overcome its skepticism and ratify the Moscow Treaty quickly.