WASHINGTON — In President Bush's first meeting with his Russian counterpart, he stressed the need for a system to defend against missile attacks from so-called rogue nations. According to press accounts, President Putin was polite in his continued opposition to Bush's plan for a missile defense system. But both leaders failed to acknowledge that the greatest danger to global security comes from the same old place - Russia, and by extension, the United States.
Last month, Mr. Bush stated: "Unlike the cold war, today's most urgent threat stems not from thousands of ballistic missiles in the Soviet hands, but from a small number of missiles in the hands of [rogue] states." Say that again? A handful of missiles that North Korea might acquire in the future is a greater danger than 1,000 Russian nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert?
Not a chance. It is true that, thankfully, we no longer face the realistic possibility of intentional nuclear attack from Russia. And, yes, long-range missiles in the hands of dictators are a serious concern. But that threat pales in comparison to the dangers posed by a crumbling Russian empire - a mistaken launch of Russian nuclear weapons and the risk that the spread of bomb ingredients from Russia will feed further nuclear appetites.
Ten years after the cold war evaporated, the US still has more than 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads on high alert - ready to launch at Russia within minutes. Russia struggles to match our quick-launch capabilities, but its early warning and control systems are deteriorating. This hair-trigger posture gravely increases the risk that a mistake in Russia could spark a nuclear war. This is not an idle concern. In 1995, Russia came dangerously close to launching a nuclear strike in response to what it thought might have been a US attack. Fortunately, Moscow was able to figure out in time that it was only an experimental rocket fired from Norway. Recognizing this danger, last year Bush said "for two nations at peace, keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch." He's right.
Unfortunately, the Russian warheads on hair-trigger alert are only the tip of the nuclear iceberg. Moscow also struggles to control up to 20,000 nuclear weapons either deployed or in storage, as well as vast supplies of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons materials - as well as thousands of missiles. There are tens of thousands of underpaid Russian scientists and technicians who might be tempted to sell their knowledge. As the recent bipartisan study chaired by Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler warned, Russia could emerge as "a virtual 'Home Depot' for would-be proliferators."
To its credit, the administration is considering reducing the US nuclear arsenal and its readiness for quick launch. Bush says he wants to lead by example, and then encourage Russia to follow suit. Such efforts should be supported and applauded.
But herein lies the rub: Bush's aggressive pursuit of a national missile defense system will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Moscow to shift to a safer nuclear stance. US intention to deploy this system undermines Russia's confidence that it could retaliate against a US attack, and encourages Moscow to maintain its quick-launch readiness. Missile defense also threatens US-Russian cooperation in general, and with it, future US-funded efforts to help Moscow control its nuclear weapons, materials, and scientists. Moreover, a defense system cannot hope to intercept a mistaken Russian launch. Such a launch could involve hundreds, if not thousands, of warheads, which would be accompanied by decoys to fool the defense.
The Bush administration's obsession with missile defense misses the central reality of US security - built upon and dependent on the cooperation and goodwill of US friends, allies, and even so-called competitors. The US cannot reduce the nuclear threats from Russia - both mistaken launch and loose nukes - on its own.
Tom Z. Collina is the director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is one of 16 scientists and security experts who co-authored the recent report Toward True Security: A US Nuclear Posture for the Next Decade.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor