Senate Reviews U.S.-Russian Nuclear Reductions Treaty

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IN A SERIES of July and August hearings, senators of both parties signaled that they would support ratification of the latest U.S.-Russian nuclear arms accord, even though several questioned the treaty's failure to require the destruction of warheads, lay out a schedule for warhead reduction, or establish measures to verify that the promised reductions actually take place. Senior Bush administration officials largely downplayed the senators' concerns.

Signed May 24 by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty commits the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads apiece by December 31, 2012. The accord, which the Bush administration refers to as the Moscow Treaty, expires that same day.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE) left little doubt about the treaty's fate July 9, when he opened the first hearing on the accord. Although detailing several problems he had with the treaty, Biden concluded that he hoped to see the treaty voted on and approved this fall. Other Democrats echoed Biden, raising questions and concerns but ultimately underscoring that they saw the treaty as a positive step forward.

Most Republicans offered unqualified praise. A notable exception was Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). A leading proponent of helping Russia secure and destroy its huge weapons stockpiles, Lugar endorsed the treaty but expressed worries about what would happen to Russian nuclear warheads separated from their missiles, submarines, and bombers.

Testifying at different hearings, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed complaints about the treaty's lack of warhead destruction, claiming that both Russia and the United States would certainly destroy warheads they did not need. Rumsfeld added at his July 25 Armed Services Committee appearance that the administration was unlikely to pursue an agreement on warhead dismantlement in the future.

Rumsfeld explained that the administration did not want to require warhead elimination because the United States must be able to store warheads in case it needs to replace deployed warheads that became unreliable or unsafe. Rumsfeld added that the future cannot be accurately predicted and the world could undergo a dramatic change that would necessitate a buildup in U.S. nuclear forces.

The Bush administration is planning to keep up to 2,400 warheads that it removes from service ready for redeployment in weeks, months, or at most three years. Thousands of other warheads and components will be kept as spares or in lower stages of readiness.

Democratic critics charged that by storing warheads, rather than eliminating them or their delivery vehicles, the administration was being misleading about the true extent of the reductions. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) pointedly told Powell July 9 that "there's a certain fiction here in addition." Powell subsequently told Biden at the same hearing, "The treaty will allow you to have as many warheads as you want."

Both Powell and Rumsfeld argued that the administration does not care what Russia does with its deployed or stored warheads as long as they are secure against theft or unauthorized use. Both secretaries and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played down past U.S. concerns that Russia might keep or put multiple warheads on its missiles, stating simply that times had changed and multiple-warhead missiles were no longer a worry.

Powell even suggested July 9 that the Bush administration would not be particularly concerned if Russia did not reduce its forces at all, declaring that the administration had decided independently to cut U. …