When Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin sign their nuclear treaty tomorrow, it appears that they will be limiting US and Russian arsenals for just one day, technically speaking.
The pact holds that by Dec. 31, 2012, the number of operational warheads for long-range missiles and bombers should be no greater than 2,200 per side. But before that day, there are no deadlines to meet, and afterward, the treaty expires.
Furthermore, the agreement has little in the way of fine print at all. Past arms pacts contained complicated sublimits meant to cap the most threatening kind of warheads.
There's nothing like that here. For all the US cares, Moscow could mount all its permitted warheads on heavy SS-18s a missile once so feared by the Pentagon that its NATO designation was "Satan."
START III, it isn't. Call it fast-track arms control. In its unstructured nature, the Bush-Putin Pact of 2002 has, if nothing else, pioneered a new approach for a new age to the military relationship of old rivals.
To critics, that is its primary defect. Its restraint is insubstantial, they say, a fragile thing that could be undone by the merest change in geopolitical winds.
To the administration, it is an agreement that makes the deepest reductions of the nuclear age and didn't require the sort of lengthy negotiations that enriched Geneva's hoteliers during the cold war.
"This is not virtual arms control," said a senior administration official at a recent briefing for reporters.
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Administration officials agree that the impending treaty, in its simplicity, will be legally binding for but a blink of time. But they claim that to focus on this is to miss the agreement's point.
It's not about numbers, they say. It's about codifying the tone of a new, friendlier US-Russian relationship. The new treaty isn't as complicated as past ones because it doesn't have to be.
"Instead of a negotiation which took multiple years and consumed multiple forests worth of paper, what we have is a negotiation that's ... produced a treaty which when fully prepared, will be about three pages long," said the senior official.
In any case, the fact that the treaty mandates only a reduction endpoint does not mean each side won't be checking up on the other as they go along. The treaty does call for implementation of some consultation procedures similar to those used in past arms pacts.
That means that in the years ahead, US delegations will be trooping to Russia to peer into silos and count warheads and Russian delegations will be coming to the US to do the same. If either side appears to be falling behind dismantlement commitments, the other party will presumably get to register its displeasure.
"A bilateral implementation committee will be created," said the senior official. "And that commission will pursue enhancing transparency and predictability."
The bottom line, from the administration's point of view: The US nuclear arsenal is now delinked from its Russian counterpart. This means that the size, makeup, and deployment of American nuclear weapons should no longer reflect a computer-straining calculation of how many of them would survive a surprise Russian first strike.
After all, friends don't target friends with hundreds of megatons of explosives.
"So I hope this is the last arms-control agreement with Russia, and that we go from here to dealing with Russia the way we deal with the United Kingdom, or Brazil," said Richard Perle, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and adviser to the administration on defense issues, at a press briefing on the Bush-Putin summit.
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However US-Russian relations develop in the future, there are aspects of the new Bush-Putin accord that critics find troubling.
Primary among these is the flexibility it allows both sides to eventually build their forces right back up, if they so wish.
Unlike past arms pacts, the new one does not call for the destruction of the bombers, missiles, and submarines that carry nuclear warheads. Those may be maintained, albeit shorn of their atomic striking power.
Nor will the warheads themselves necessarily be dismantled. The US, for its part, plans to maintain up to 2,400 nondeployed warheads in what officials term a "responsive force," which does not count against the new treaty's limits.
As a result, some critics say the pact's effect will be not so much a reduction in nuclear weapons as their rearrangement. The US could redeploy up to a total of 4,600 nuclear weapons within months of the new treaty's expiration date.
"Clearly, it falls well short of the greater degree of stability and security that verifiable dismantlement of delivery systems and warheads would accomplish," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
And in some respects, the new treaty steps back from gains made by the US in the never-to-be-implemented START II treaty. Under the terms of that agreement, Russia would have dismantled its most powerful nuclear delivery system the multiple-warhead SS-18 missile. Under the terms of the Bush-Putin pact, the SS-18 can stay, if the Russian military so wishes, as long as total warheads drop to the 1,700-to-2,200 range.
Nor does this week's treaty say anything about smaller, tactical nuclear warheads of which the US has some hundreds left, and the Russians upwards of 8,000. It is these weapons that many experts worry might end up in the hands of terrorists, with catastrophic results.
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It's all well and good to develop a new political relationship with the Russians, say critics. But nuclear weapons have a geopolitical power that can transcend the ties between their owners. Arms-control advocates contend that both US and Russian leaders will have to continue to be wary of the other's nuclear intentions and continue to work on further moves to reduce stockpile numbers, if they want to truly be friends.
The new pact "will eliminate part of the legacy of the cold war, but many more steps will be necessary," says John Holum, a vice president of Atlas Air Inc. and former undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
The United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union agree to the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits all testing in the atmosphere, outer space, or underwater.
The US and Soviet Union begin regular strategic arms limitation talks (SALT).
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) comes into effect, aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
President Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT I agreement, which sets an interim ceiling on strategic offensive nuclear weapons. They also sign the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which forbids the deployment of a national missile-defense system.
The US and Soviet Union sign SALT II in Vienna, limiting the proliferation of long-range bombers and missiles. But President Carter withdraws the treaty from Senate consideration because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Still, the two sides agree to observe the pact.
The US and Soviet Union begin strategic arms reduction talks (START).
Presidents Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev (above) sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans ground-launched, medium-range nuclear missiles.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev sign START I. It slashes US and Soviet nuclear arsenals by about one-third.
Presidents Bush and Boris Yeltsin sign START II, which spells the end of almost two-thirds of US and Russian nuclear missiles. The treaty, however, has not been implemented.
The US, Britain, China, France, Russia, and 50 other nations sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which prohibits all nuclear explosions. As of August 2001, 79 nations had approved the treaty, but 82, including the US, have signed but not ratified it.
President George W. Bush gives Moscow notice that the US is withdrawing from the ABM Treaty.
Bush announces the US and Russia have agreed to a pact that will cut their deployed strategic nuclear weapons by two-thirds by 2012. The treaty is to be signed in Moscow tomorrow by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sources: Reuters; Associated Press; Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies