Russia and US poised to relaunch nuclear reduction treaty
Hillary Clinton on Russia: 'It's time to explore a fresh start.' The overtures are being greeted warmly in Russia. Is a massive arsenal cut on the horizon?
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"We have heard these declarations from Obama," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee. "This is very welcome. We are in favor of deep strategic cuts, but there is a complex knot of problems to be resolved. The balance needs to be maintained."Skip to next paragraph
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The Russians complain that Washington lost interest in serious arms control with Moscow after the USSR collapsed. But Russia and the US, between them, hold about 93 percent of the world's remaining 25,000 nuclear weapons, according to the Washington-based Center for Defense Information (CDI), and little has changed in the equation since the cold war's end.
Experts say that any serious attempt to engage other up-and-coming nuclear powers in arms control – much less convince countries like Iran and North Korea to dismantle their atomic programs – will require decisive moves toward disarmament by the big powers. Currently, according to CDI, China has about 410 warheads, France 384, Israel and Britain around 200 each, India about 60, and Pakistan 25.
"If Russia and the US are interested in keeping the nuclear non-proliferation regime alive, they must do their best to get a new framework for arms control going," says Anton Khlopkov, executive director of the PIR Center, an independent Moscow-based security think tank. "Otherwise, many other countries will see it as more hypocrisy from the big powers who, just as in the past, call on others to disarm but do not keep their own pledges."
Tight deadline approaches
The Bush administration responded to Russian pleas by signing the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002, which called for both sides to slash their arsenals to a maximum of 2,200 weapons on each side by 2012. But it's a deal the Russians say they'd prefer to forget, because it contained no provisions for verifying compliance and seemed, to them, a way for Mr. Bush to avoid discussing arms control with Moscow.
"This so-called SORT was a page-and-a-half long, and was basically a statement of intention with no follow up mechanisms at all," says Mr. Khlopkov. "Russia was, and is, interested in old-fashioned arms control talks with a full framework of mutual obligations."
The Russians claim that the Bush administration's opposition to structured negotiations led it to ignore all opportunities for prolonging START, thus leaving Obama with a very tight deadline to find a replacement for the accord. As soon as they start discussing fresh cuts in offensive strategic weapons, experts say, the US and Russia will run up against another Bush legacy: the lack of controls on antimissile systems.
"Back in the 1970s, the American approach was that development of defensive weapons must be blocked first of all, and that led to the ABM Treaty," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats. But the US broke out of the ABM Treaty in 2001, and began developing a global antimissile shield that includes plans to station interceptors in Poland, right near Russia's borders.
"I don't see how we can discuss strategic arms control in isolation from this larger context; the missile defense issue will have to be addressed as well," says Mr. Bazhanov. "But Russia is ready, and the signals all say Obama is ready too. It's a historic moment."