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San Francisco Chronicle
May 17, 2003
Putin's arms talk sounds the alarm
Russia suggests it is creating new types of weapons
By James Sterngold, Chronicle Staff Writer

A vague suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia may be developing a new generation of nuclear weapons raised some alarms in Washington on Friday, intensifying an already bitter debate in Congress over the Bush administration's efforts to repeal a ban on the development of certain smaller warheads.

During his annual assessment of the state of the republic, Putin reiterated his call for a modern, professional military. He later said that the military was developing new types of strategic weapons.

Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian arms control negotiator who is now a senior researcher at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said that although Putin never used the word "nuclear," it was implied. But Sokov described the comments as brief and Delphic.

"These weapons will be able to insure the defense of Russia and its allies in the long term," Putin said, according to Sokov's translation. But shortly afterward, his deputy prime minister for the military industrial complex, Boris Alyoshin, said he was not certain what weapons the president was referring to, Sokov said.

Even so, the hints seemed deliberate, and they caused immediate concern in Washington. President Bush is fighting for a repeal of a 10-year-old law that prohibits development of smaller, more usable "low-yield" nuclear weapons, and he has budgeted millions of dollars for research into new kinds of warheads.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, has been a leader in the fight to retain the low-yield prohibition, in large part out of concern that new tactical weapons might be seen as a provocation and encourage other countries, including Russia and China, to build their own.

She said that the Bush administration's tough rhetoric on the need for new weapons had undermined efforts to prevent nuclear arms proliferation.

"There has been a degradation of our position on arms control, and it is making others nervous," Tauscher said.

William Potter, the head of a nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute, said he was particularly concerned about the development of low-yield weapons, which the Russians have mentioned previously, because they are more usable and because they are the type that would be of most interest to terrorists or hostile nations.

Developing such weapons -- particularly in Russia, where security is not tight -- creates opportunities for them to end up in terrorists' hands, Potter said.

But supporters of the administration's policies said Putin's comments only strengthened their arguments that the United States needs to increase its military readiness by at least doing research into new types of nuclear weapons.

Earlier this week, the House Armed Services Committee struck a compromise in which it agreed to keep the existing ban on producing low-yield weapons in place while lifting prohibitions on research.

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., supported the committee's compromise and said Putin's comments further proved that America needed at least to understand new weapons.

She said the United States has known for some time that Russia still had an active nuclear weapons program and that the speech in Moscow added urgency to the matter.

"It's one of the reasons why we need to research advanced concepts -- so we are not caught unprepared," she said.

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