Neutralizing Nukes

As Russian and US military planners meet this week to discuss mutual cuts in nuclear armaments, a question mark hangs in the air: How can the US on the one hand boost efforts to dismantle Russian nukes, and on the other hand simply shelve its own warheads for possible future use?

In early January, the Bush administration made the welcome announcement that it would increase funding to deactivate excess Russian weaponry of mass destruction - a project under way for nearly a decade now. At about the same time, however, the Pentagon said that as the US worked toward reductions in its own nuclear arms, as agreed last year by Presidents Bush and Putin, the warheads would be stored, not dismantled.

This apparent inconsistency springs from ingrained cold-war thinking in the Pentagon. Planners there still are thinking in terms of thousands of overseas targets, whether Russian missile silos or other still unforeseen threats. They may also assume that stored warheads in the US don't pose the same dangers as stored warheads in Russia.

That, of course, ignores the Russian perspective. Plenty of President Putin's military aides may be only too happy to follow the US lead, storing warheads for what they still see as a future Western threat.

The irony in this cold-war mentality is that it could deepen the very danger the other US initiative - aid to help reduce stockpiled weaponry of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union - is designed to address. No one needs even more stacked-up Russian nukes, vulnerable to theft.

The US-backed programs to reduce that danger, in effect since 1991, have had considerable success. Thousands of warheads have been deactivated, nuclear material put in safer storage, and weapons scientists redirected to peaceful pursuits. But much remains to be done, and funding has been barely adequate.

The Bush decision to sustain funding is positive, though specific figures won't be known until the 2003 budget is out. The administration is leaning toward a little more than $1 billion. Many in Congress are willing to go higher, and a bipartisan commission that issued its findings early last year recommended $3 billion a year.

The positive US move to help Russia get rid of excess nukes should be matched with a positive willingness to deactivate permanently America's surplus warheads. If that takes the more formal agreement Russia favors, with verification measures, fine.

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