WASHINGTON -- To generations who came of age during the Cold War, the nuclear arms agreement announced Monday by U.S. and Russian officials has the ring of a once-impossible dream.
nuclear weapons would be removed from arsenals that defined decades of
hostility between the United States and the former Soviet
But the agreement encountered immediate criticism that it
fails to address the more realistic, post-Cold War threats that the United
States faces. In particular, arms control experts said the treaty would
raise the likelihood that warheads would find their way into the hands of
terrorists or rogue nations because the Bush administration insisted that
both countries be allowed to achieve reductions by storing--rather than
dismantling--their nuclear weapons.
As a result, thousands of
Russian warheads that might have been permanently disabled under a more
aggressive treaty could instead be moved into storage facilities whose
security is rated uncertain at best, even by the administration's own
recent intelligence assessments.
"Reducing nuclear weapons on both
sides is a good thing," said Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the
Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "But we may
be no more secure after this agreement has been implemented than we are
Under terms of the treaty, which must be approved by the
U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma, the two countries would over the next
decade reduce their stockpiles by two-thirds, to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads
The agreement leaves it to the countries to determine how
they would make those reductions. A White House official who asked not to
be identified said the Pentagon is responsible for working out details of
U.S. compliance. Some of the U.S. weapons would be dismantled, the
official said, but others would be placed in "deep storage" or set aside
as "operational spares."
Weapons placed in the latter category
would not be available for immediate use on submarines or bombers or in
silos, but they could be quickly redeployed.
The White House has
not spelled out specific scenarios in which it envisions a redeployment of
stored nuclear weapons, and arms control advocates have said it's hard to
envision circumstances in which 2,200 warheads would be
But the Bush administration insisted that the treaty
allow flexibility for "uncertain security environments" in the future. The
three-page accord also contains a clause allowing either side to exit the
agreement entirely with three months' notice.
posture scored points with conservatives, making the proposed treaty
palatable to some who have questioned the need for any arms control
negotiations in an era when the United States is the world's sole
"This is the least bad outcome," said Frank Gaffney
Jr., president of the conservative Center for Security Policy and a former
The United States and Russia had been pursuing
the treaty for much of the last year and until recently disagreed sharply
over how far to go in taking weapons offline.
economic troubles have strained its ability to maintain its arsenal, had
pressed for language that would have required weapons to be dismantled.
But Russia had little bargaining power in negotiations that often
highlighted the growing disparity between the two countries' fortunes
since the end of the Cold War.
Though Russia preferred dismantling
weapons, President Vladimir V. Putin is now likely to feel politically
compelled to maintain parity with the United States by storing an equal
number of warheads, experts said.
"If the United States is storing
rather than dismantling its weapons, it will be hard for the Russians to
[do otherwise]," said Robert Einhorn, a former U.S. assistant secretary of
State for nonproliferation.
But Russia's ability to safeguard its
nuclear arsenal has come under increasing doubt.
A report by the
National Intelligence Council--a panel representing U.S. spy
agencies--concluded that Russia's security system "was designed in the
Soviet era to protect weapons primarily against a threat from outside the
country and may not be sufficient to meet today's challenge of a
knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist
The report says that security at Russian facilities is
already being tested. Russian authorities, according to the document, have
"twice thwarted terrorist efforts to reconnoiter nuclear weapons storage
sites" in recent years.
Many of Russia's nuclear weapons storage
sites "remain off-limits to U.S. officials," meaning their security
conditions have never been evaluated, the report said.
turmoil in Russia continues to erode its ability to safeguard its arsenal.
In some cases, guards at nuclear facilities have gone months without pay,
and others have launched hunger strikes to demand better working
All of which makes Russia's vast nuclear weapons
infrastructure vulnerable to organized crime and terrorist groups who
could theoretically sneak out a warhead in a small pickup truck, experts
"The longer those warheads sit around in Russia, the greater
the chance that they get lost or sold," said Tom Z. Collina, director of
the global security program at the Union of Concerned
Dismantled warheads also pose a security risk. Their
component parts could still be used to reconstruct a warhead or a "dirty"
bomb in which radioactive material is dispersed by a traditional explosive
device. But the threat would be greater if thousands of Russian warheads
went into storage intact, Collina and others said.
good to take the arsenals down by two-thirds," Collina said. "But this
treaty leaves unanswered the question of what happens to the warheads once
they're off the missiles."