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San Jose Mercury News
November 29, 2001
Bush and Putin didn't really reduce the world's nuclear risk

Dr. Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky is director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

EVERYONE should applaud that Presidents Bush and Putin have met as friends at the recent summit rather than as adversaries, thus burying past Cold War animosities. But their much-vaunted agreement on reduction of nuclear weapons leaves much to be desired.

With great fanfare, Bush proclaimed that each country would reduce deployed strategic nuclear weapons from today's level of about 6,000 to a level between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads over 10 years. However the actual agreement refers only to ``operational deployed strategic warheads.'' This number does not differ significantly from that agreed to in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START II, signed in 1993 by the United States and the Russian Federation.

That treaty proposed not only reductions of ``deployed strategic warheads'' to between 3,000 and 3,500 to be accomplished initially by the year 2003, then later extended to 2007, but also specified additional constraints such as limits on multiple re-entry vehicles, which would make reversal of the treaty more difficult.

In 1997, the presidents of the two countries further agreed to reduce deployed strategic warheads to between 2,000 and 2,500 once the START II reductions were completed. Since the addition of the term ``operational'' exempts warheads carried by submarines and aircraft under repair, the ``new'' agreement and the START II numbers hardly differ.

Though START II was signed and ratified, the treaty never came into force because both the Russian Duma and the U.S. Congress tangled up ratification of the agreed extension protocols with other issues, notably those related to still-existing disagreements about national missile defense and the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

At this time, the United States retains about 10,000 total nuclear warheads and the Russians more. Thus, the recent agreements reached by Presidents Putin and Bush cover only a fraction of the total number of nuclear warheads possessed by either state, and no obligations to reduce non-strategic -- tactical and reserve weapons -- are mentioned. The other important restraints provided by START II would lapse.

Disagreement remains as to how solemn an obligation the two countries are assuming to really follow through on their promises over the next 10 years.

Bush expressed disdain for the conventional treaty process, indicating that he would be satisfied with a handshake, although if necessary he would be willing to sign a sheet of paper. Putin, however, emphasized the need for a treaty and for verification procedures to check on compliance by each side.

What is at stake here? Under the Bush proposal, he could reverse the obligation at any time, and a future U.S. president could follow a different course. We are supposed to be a nation of laws, not of men; treaties are the laws as recognized internationally that constrain what future leaders can do. Treaties therefore give a permanency to the kind of reductions which a mere handshake cannot possibly provide.

There also remains the question of the future of the ABM treaty. Bush opposes that treaty, but pulled back from threats of abrogation or setting a fixed timetable for its revision. The agreement that had been expected to be reached at the summit failed to materialize. It would have permitted certain tests that are forbidden by the treaty, but which are logical steps in the United States' research and development program.

The presidents apparently decided on continuing discussions with agreement possibly to be reached at the next summit in Russia. Indeed this is better than outright abrogation on the part of the United States and signals that both Putin and Bush are eager to avoid any current confrontation on national missile defense.

This is wise since both countries face much more urgent problems today in stemming the tide of terrorism. Deployment of a national missile defense is years away and remains a highly dubious enterprise.

The multi-layered defense that the Bush administration is advocating would cost several times the $60 billion projected for the more limited ``Clinton defense,'' which could have been easily countered by relatively simple means.

So, happily, Presidents Putin and Bush have avoided any direct conflict over nuclear weapons arms control, but at the same time the much hoped for formal agreements on drastic and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons are not in sight.

Remember that two nuclear weapons of explosive power of about one-tenth of those in today's stockpiles killed nearly 250,000 Japanese in 1945. The vast remaining stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the hundreds of tons of weapons-grade materials held by the United States and Russia remain a clear and present danger to civilization.

The Bush-Putin agreement on nuclear weapons reductions has done nothing to reduce that risk.

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