Nearing arms pact, US and Russia look ahead

Nearing arms pact, US and Russia look ahead

Eight months, three presidential meetings, countless Geneva negotiating sessions and one missed deadline later, the United States and Russia appear close to agreement on a new arms control treaty that will reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals by at least one quarter.

But even if the two sides manage to bring home a deal in coming days as they hope, that will be the easy part. After President Obama and President Dmitri A Medvedev of Russia sign the new pact, they plan to send negotiators back to the table next year to pursue a far more ambitious agreement tackling whole categories of nuclear weapons never before subject to international limits.

The talks envisioned for 2010 would continue to advance  Obama’s disarmament agenda and attempt what no president has managed since the dark days of the cold war. In addition to further reducing deployed strategic warheads, the negotiations would try to empty at least some vaults now storing warheads in reserve. And the two sides would take aim at thousands of tactical nuclear bombs most vulnerable to theft or proliferation, some still located in Europe 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The effort is part of a broader initiative by Obama to start down the road toward eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons and to transform the American military for a new era. A nuclear posture review due next month will propose an overhaul of the nation’s strategic doctrine and force consideration of the question of how many weapons the US really needs without a superpower rival, including whether to eliminate one leg of the traditional “triad” of submarines, missiles and bombers.

The first step is the completion of the treaty now on the table. Obama met Medvedev at Copenhagen on the sidelines of the global climate change conference, hoping to cut through the remaining obstacles to the agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, known as Start, which expired on December 5.
New version
face-off: President Dmitri A Medvedev of Russia and US President Obama have given a new push to the nuclear weapons reduction deal between the two countries.  NYTThe new version of  START would require each side to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to roughly 1,600, down from 2,200, according to a senior American official. It would also force each side to reduce its strategic bombers and land-and-sea-based missiles to below 800, down from the old limit of 1,600. Foreign Minister Sergey V Lavrov of Russia said on Thursday that there had been “some slowing down” in negotiations by the other side, but American officials denied it and said there were just three remaining issues to resolve, mainly on verification.

If lingering differences can be addressed, the Obama administration hopes to build on the trust established over the past eight months and plunge right back into talks for a broader agreement. That broader treaty would reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads even further, perhaps to about 1,000 for each country, a level considered the lowest the two would go without bringing in China, Britain, France and other nuclear powers.
The lopsided balance is the opposite for tactical warheads, defined as those with ranges below 300 to 400 miles. Russia has 3,000 to 8,000 of them, according to the Cenre. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that about 2,000 of them are actually deployed, while the Arms Control Association says that perhaps just a few hundred are truly operational.

Estimates of American tactical nuclear weapons range from 500 to 1,200, with about 150 to 240 still deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, half as many as about five years ago. The US in recent years has withdrawn tactical nuclear weapons from bases in Britain, Germany and Greece.

“Today these weapons are militarily unnecessary, and they are a much bigger liability than asset because Russia and the US have to maintain security over these warheads whether they are deployed or not deployed, and they’re harder to track because they’re smaller,” said Daryl G Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. But the challenge of reaching an accord would eclipse the difficulties in drafting the current treaty, which was supposed to be completed by the time Start expired two weeks ago.
Withdrawing arms
The idea of withdrawing all tactical nuclear arms has generated debate in Europe. In October, Germany’s new foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, called for “a country free of nuclear weapons,” meaning it was time for the US to remove the remaining tactical weapons. But other Nato allies are leery of a complete pullback, seeing the presence of the weapons as a sign of America’s continued commitment to European security.

Tactical nuclear weapons were developed during the cold war as generally lower-yield, shorter-range explosives that could be used on the battlefield. The US and its Nato allies relied on them as a deterrent to any invasion of Western Europe by what were presumed to be superior Soviet and Warsaw Pact land forces. But since the demise of the Soviet Union, the thinking has flipped, and Russia today views tactical nuclear weapons as a bulwark against American conventional supremacy.

“The idea that they would give these things up lightly is a fool’s errand,” said Henry D Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. Washington and Moscow emerged from the cold war determined to reduce tactical nuclear arms, and both sides announced unilateral cuts in 1991. As a result, 17,000 tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from service, but no treaty ever imposed legally binding limits.

Nikolai N Sokov, a former Soviet arms control negotiator now with the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, called it “the longest deadlock on the entire arms control agenda.”

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