Flexibility in nuclear pact creates its own limitations

The treaty's impact is dulled by no rules for a timetable or destruction of warheads.

While politically important, this week's US-Russian accord to remove thousands of nuclear warheads from operational deployment is unlikely to make the world a markedly safer place.

Experts say that the Bush administration deserves credit for simply achieving an agreement to scale back offensive nuclear weapons, while also moving ahead with missile defense – breaking the inertia over US-Russian strategic arms reductions under Clinton's presidency.

"We did get there in a way that is a little more informal, a little more unilateral, but we did it," says a nuclear expert affiliated with the Pentagon.

The treaty, to be signed by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week, also marks a diplomatic success. "The significance is not so much in strategic terms, it's more in terms of the relationship we are building with Russia," says Robert Einhorn, a former US assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation.

Yet many experts agree that the treaty's broad rules and open-ended approach make it less meaningful as a curb on a possible nuclear catastrophe. "The treaty does not make us more secure. But it may make us less secure, because the real risk is about diverting and stealing nuclear weapons," says Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Marginal gain in safety

In terms of sheer numbers, experts agree that a marginal gain in safety will result if the United States and Russia each lower the number of deployed nuclear warheads from about 5,000 to 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the year 2012. "The fewer nuclear weapons there are, the less chance of accidents and miscalculations," says Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here.

Declining numbers, in turn, "will produce some very modest progress with respect to each side's confidence about the direction of their cold-war nuclear arsenals," says Darryl Kimball, director of Washington's nonprofit Arms Control Association.

Although some experts pointed out that overly deep cuts could prove destabilizing – by enabling a missile-defense system to effectively neutralize another nation's offensive weapons – virtually all concluded that this week's accord is too cautious in cutting warheads.

Moreover, the Bush administration's insistence on a highly flexible treaty limits its strategic impact, experts say. The treaty does not set a timetable for cuts or require that the warheads taken out of service be destroyed. In fact, it has a 90-day withdrawal clause and expires in 10 years, freeing either side to rebuild.

"The overriding concern we had going in was to find a way to record in the treaty the kind of flexibility the administration felt was needed," says one US official familiar with the negotiations. He acknowledged that originally the administration saw no need for a treaty, and the Pentagon was "most skeptical," emphasizing the US difficulty in canceling the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

Underlying the demand for flexibility are administration concerns about the long-term nuclear intentions of Russia, as well as deterring China and so-called "rogue" states such as Iraq and North Korea, US officials say. "The most dangerous scenario is a Russia that suddenly changes course," says the US official, adding that China "and other rogues" also pose a plausible, if more remote threat.

US negotiators sought even more leeway in the form of an "opt out" clause that would have allowed either side to temporarily exceed the warhead limits after giving notice 45 days in advance. But Russian officials rejected it.

Dangerous questions

The flip side of this flexibility to rebuild is that it raises potentially dangerous questions about future US and Russian nuclear aims, say experts, many of whom are hard put to think of situations that would require warheads exceeding treaty limits. "The signal we are sending to the world is that we take nuclear weapons and their use and employment very seriously. We actually think ... we can gain strategic advantage by using them," says Mr. Daalder.

As the world's preeminent military power, the US would gain more security not through demanding flexibility, but by curbing the military powers of all states, "because it would lock in our relative advantage," Mr. Kimball and others contend. And by insisting on holding warheads in reserve, rather than agreeing to Russian calls to dismantle them, Washington is perpetuating what many experts view as America's greatest, most immediate nuclear threat: vulnerability of the Russian stockpile to diversion or theft.

Another vital safety area not addressed by the treaty is the need for shared early-warning data to lower the risk of an accidental launch, a problem "much more dangerous than the [weapons] balance," says Hans Binnendijk, a nuclear-weapons expert at the Pentagon's National Defense University.

"The US and Russia are not going to go to nuclear war with each other under anyone's scenario," he says, "But Russian early warning is deteriorating to the point where they no longer have confidence in what they are seeing, and they could misinterpret a missile launch."

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