Bennett Ramberg

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

As the Senate attempts to wrap its lame duck session with the New START finale, lost in the back and forth over ratification lies one question that few senators appear willing to ask: Why, now twenty years after the Cold War, do Moscow and Washington find it acceptable to retain thousands of warheads pointed at the other with or without the treaty? Recent official strategy documents by both countries fail to address the matter convincingly leaving each country dedicated to continuing the mutual nuclear hostage relationship that ought to have been put to bed long ago.

Today’s Russian-American arsenals remain remnants of a bygone era. During the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons became both the currency of power and the acute source of preemption anxiety born out of the surprise attack scars the two countries suffered in World War II. The result propelled the exponential growth of weapons to prevent a nuclear Pearl Harbor.

At its height, the United States stocked 31,000 weapons, the Soviet Union over 40,000 by some estimates. Largely reflecting the Cold War’s demise, but also the legacy of earlier arms limitation treaties, Moscow and Washington have come a long way in curbing inventories. Today the United States deploys some 2000 strategic warheads and Russia 2500. Still, under New START, millions of people will remain in the cross hairs of 1550 deployed warheads.

In February 2010, Moscow unveiled its rationale. Notwithstanding deterrent weight it now gives to a new generation of precision guided conventional weapons, the Kremlin’s continues to see the nuclear arsenal as its ultimate security blanket: “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against her and (or) her allies, and in a case of an aggression against her with conventional weapons that would put in danger the very existence of the state.”

In its April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration took a more nuanced approach. It eliminated nuclear targeting of non nuclear weapons states that complied with NPT vows. It added, only in “a narrow range of contingencies” would it use nuclear weapons to deal with chemical, biological and conventional attack. But all other circumstances, including targeting of Russia with the bulk of the arsenal, nuclear war plans remain in tact. The presumption: the Bomb provides “stability.” “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain secure and effective nuclear forces” to deter, reassure allies and promote stability globally and in key regions.

Despite the president’s pledge to seek nuclear abolition, the Review registered “very demanding” “conditions” that make more dramatic nuclear reductions practically impossible: resolution of regional disputes that motivates nuclear possession, greater nuclear transparency, better verification to detect nonproliferation violators and credible enforcement mechanisms to deter cheating. The Review concluded, “Clearly, such conditions do not exist today. But we can — and must — work actively to create those conditions.”

New START marks a step to meet the conditions in the Russian-American sphere, but ultimately a modest one. Eighteen on site inspections, data exchanges, a consultative committee to iron out  disputes serve verification goals. But the Obama administration’s  commitment to an $85 billion ten year refurbishment of the nuclear weapons complex signals little reduction in policies that continue the nuclear hostage relationship.

Indeed the new nuclear doctrines, budgets to boost the weapons  enterprise and congressional skepticism about New START serve as reminders of President Obama’s lament in his 2009 call for a world without nuclear weapons — “This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime.” The difficult New START debate punctuates the deeper underlying point: the nuclear Cold War has never gone away. The fact should give comfort to no one.