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Global Viewpoint

Russia and the US: Has a season of nuclear disarmament finally arrived?

The US-Russia nuclear arms deal that Obama is slated to sign April 8 signals a modest, but significant, step forward.

By Hans Blix / April 5, 2010


The financial crisis and global warming have had the world’s attention in recent years. Thanks to President Obama’s initiative, perhaps the season for nuclear disarmament has finally arrived.

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On April 8, Mr. Obama will meet Russian President Medvedev in Prague, Czech Republic, to sign a nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia that will reduce their arsenals by 30 percent.

The new US-Russian treaty will be received positively. There will be praise for the Obama administration’s attitude toward arms control and disarmament and for Russia’s readiness to join hands with the US. However, as welcome as it is as a significant signal of future cooperation, the new treaty is a relatively modest disarmament measure.

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Though not achieving the drastic cuts in nuclear arsenals and delivery vehicles that the world is longing for, the US-Russian treaty is important and encouraging.

After Bush administration policies that nearly sent the two states into a new cold war, the new treaty constitutes the resetting of an important button. It preserves arrangements for confidence building and mutual inspections, and sets the stage for negotiating more far-reaching cuts.

We should be aware, however, that a next step of deeper reductions will hardly be attainable unless there is agreement on extensive cooperation on missile defense. Russia is deeply suspicious that the missile shield could enable the US to launch an attack on any target in Russia while itself remaining immune to such attacks. Further bilateral disarmament will also be impeded if Russia feels that the NATO alliance seeks to encircle it by expanding its military cooperation through membership or otherwise with more states neighboring Russia.

The April 8 signing will take place one year after Obama’s presentation in Prague of a detailed program for the revival of global nuclear arms control and disarmament. Later in April he will be the host in Washington of a large summit meeting that will focus on nuclear security. In May, the operation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be the subject of review at a conference in New York in which nearly all governments in the world will take part. The review that took place in 2005 ended in acrimony and some predicted the end of the treaty. How will it turn out in May?

Through adherence to the NPT that was concluded in 1970, states have committed themselves to staying away from nuclear weapons or to moving away from these weapons. If all states had joined and fulfilled their commitments the treaty would have led by now to a world free of nuclear weapons. They have evidently not done so. The number of nuclear weapons peaked at more than 50,000 during the cold war and it is still over 20,000 – most of them in the US and Russia. The number of states with nuclear weapons has gone from five to nine since 1970.