Nuclear pact offers US flexibility, Russia relief

By striking a landmark nuclear-arms deal, Russia and the US have likely ensured they will both get what they want out of the upcoming Moscow summit between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush.

Mr. Putin will have the treaty itself. He will be able to present Russia as a continuing force in the world – a power still able to wring an agreement out of a reluctant United States. Mr. Bush, for his part, will enjoy a trip to Russia steeped in peace and harmony. With the potential irritant of an undone deal removed, the White House will be able to use the summit to promote a new US-Russia relationship to voters back home.

"The new era will be a period of enhanced mutual security, economic security, and improved relations," said Bush when announcing the deal yesterday.

The arms pact itself codifies the deepest cuts in atomic arsenals of the nuclear age – but it also represents a deal long foretold. Bush and Putin agreed in principle last year to reduce their arsenals to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads from the 6,000 now allowed under the START I treaty.

The Bush administration had preferred that these reductions be made without a guiding treaty. While recognizing that the new strategic relationship between the US and Russia made deep cuts possible, Bush officials have also long placed high importance on strategic flexibility.

In blunt terms, they wanted to leave the US room to rebuild its arsenal in the future, if need be.

Putin, for his part, took a more traditional view of the process of warhead reduction. Cash-strapped Russia wanted stability, not flexibility. Thus Putin last year insisted that the cuts be codified in writing.

At first, Bush appeared piqued by this insistence. But as the months rolled along, and Putin did not back down, it became apparent that the absence of a pact might become a defining irritant in the US-Russian relationship.

The end result: an apparent full-blown treaty that both sides will submit to their legislatures for ratification.

"This is significant, because Bush is saying the word 'treaty' over and over again," says Philipp Bleek, a research analyst at the private Arms Control Association in Washington.

Details, details

As always with arms control, details are very important. One sticking point had been Russia's objections to US plans for storing some of its withdrawn nuclear weapons, rather than destroying them.

A US official told reporters that under the new pact, some US weapons will indeed be destroyed – but that an undisclosed number of others will be retrained as operational spares.

The two sides "appear to be agreeing to disagree on some of the core issues," says Mr. Bleek.

In Moscow, analysts said that the deal comes as a huge relief for a Kremlin that has staked its reputation on strategic partnership with the US since Sept. 11, but has so far had little to show for making that bold choice.

"Russia has insisted that the entire framework of cold-war arms control could not be replaced with a few nice declarations, but until recently, the Bush administration seemed not to be listening.... This is a big victory for Putin, and could be a key turning point in the US-Russian relationship," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

Moscow was dismayed last December when Bush announced a unilateral American withdrawal from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which Russia regards as the keystone of cold-war-era arms control.

"For some time, it looked like Russian-US arms control would just collapse," with serious political fallout for the Kremlin, says Alexander Pikayev, a security expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "But this new deal marks the end of the 'dead end' period in the relationship. Where it leads is less certain."

Little military significance

Russian analysts say the accord has little military significance, since both sides would have slashed their strategic arsenals in any case.

Russia cannot afford to replace aging intercontinental ballistic missiles, and would have seen its long-range missile forces soon reduced to about 1,500 warheads with or without an agreement, say experts.

Moscow is still worried that the US has not agreed to permanently scrap all the warheads removed from active service under the deal, and instead may shelve some for later use. "This agreement leaves the US with full freedom of action," says Mr. Pikayev.

A few Russian experts warn that the political victory for Putin is overblown. "This agreement decides nothing. It's pure propaganda," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert. "Putin needs to justify his pro-Western stance, and now he can claim that he convinced a reluctant George Bush to sign this document."

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