Presidents Bush and Putin announced jointly that their countries “have overcome the legacy of the Cold War.” While the new cooperative relationship between the US and Russia is to be applauded, what their Presidents said and what was left unsaid about nuclear arms reductions still resonated with Cold War logic.
President Bush announced that he would be reducing the US arsenal of long-range nuclear weapons by two-thirds from some 7,000 weapons to somewhere between 2,200 and 1,700 over a ten-year period. President Putin said, “we will try to respond in kind.” These cuts, which need to be viewed in the context of the post Cold War world, will not make us two-thirds safer.
It was Presidents Bush Sr. and Yeltsin that agreed back in 1993 in the START II agreements to cut long-range nuclear arsenals to 3,500 each by the beginning of 2003. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin moved this date back to the end of 2007, but also agreed in principle to go beyond this in a next step to 2,500 long-range nuclear weapons in START III negotiations.
Since entering office, President Putin has let it be known that he is prepared to reduce the long-range nuclear arsenals of the two sides to 1,500 or less. Some of his aides have said privately that President Putin was prepared to go down to 1,000 or less. Chances are he still is prepared to move to lower levels.
Still lower levels of nuclear armaments would be consistent with leaving behind the legacy of the Cold War, while improving the security of both countries. If the US and Russia are no longer using these weapons to deter each other from attacking (since there is no reason to do so), for what reason do they need these weapons at all? It is widely understood that nuclear weapons have no military utility other than deterrence, and even this was shown to be ineffective in preventing terrorist attacks on September 11th.
China has a minimal deterrent force of only some 500 weapons with only some 20 missiles capable of reaching the United States. India and Pakistan also have small nuclear arsenals, but surely they pose no threat to the US or Russia. The UK, France and Israel also have small nuclear arsenals, but pose no threat to either the US or Russia.
North Korea, Iran and Iraq have neither nuclear weapons nor missiles with which to attack the US or Russia, and they would certainly be foolish to do so, given the conventional military power alone of these two countries.
The greatest danger posed to both countries is not from each other or any other country. It is from terrorists, but terrorists cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons. Certainly this was one crucial lesson of September 11th.
The US and Russia need to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists. The best way to do this is to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in all states to a level that can be controlled with certainty and to institute controls on weapons-grade fissile materials.
To achieve such controls, which are truly in the security interests of both countries, will require even deeper cuts made with far more sense of urgency. Such cuts are necessary to keep Russian “loose nukes” out of the hands of terrorists and to demonstrate to the world the US and Russia are truly committed to achieving the nuclear disarmament they promised when they signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty more than three decades ago.
Presidents Bush and Putin have also left some important things unsaid in regard to nuclear arms. They have made no mention of the continued high alert status of their nuclear weapons. Currently each country has some 2,250 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched within moments of an order to do so. This tempts fate unnecessarily, and could lead to an accidental nuclear war.
Neither have the two Presidents made reference to tactical nuclear weapons, the smaller battlefield nuclear weapons that would be most likely to be used and that could most easily fall into the hands of terrorists. Nor has President Bush made mention of the serious implications for global stability if the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is amended or abrogated, as the US is seeking, to allow for the testing of space based weaponry.
President Bush has said that he is prepared to reduce the US nuclear arsenal unilaterally, but this means that it is also possible to reverse this decision unilaterally. Several thousand US and Russian nuclear warheads will be dismantled in the coming ten years, but their nuclear cores will presumably be stored and available for reassembly on short notice. The decision to reduce nuclear arsenals should be committed to writing and made irreversible, such that the nuclear cores are unavailable for future use and subsequent administrations in both countries will be bound by the commitment.
In the year 2000, the parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty agreed that the principle of irreversibility should apply to nuclear disarmament. The US and Russia also agreed, along with the UK, France and China, to an “unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”
If the US and Russia truly want to prevent future nuclear terrorism, this is the time for leadership to accomplish the “total elimination” that has been promised. The US and Russia are the only countries capable of providing this leadership, but it is unlikely that they will do so unless pressed by the American and Russian people. And this will only happen if our peoples grasp the extent of the nuclear dangers that still confront us.
We should not be lulled into thinking that reductions of long-range nuclear weapons to 2,200 to 1,700 in ten years time are sufficient. Such arsenals will continue to place at risk our cities as well as civilization and most of life.
*David Krieger, an attorney and political scientist, is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.