Disarmament's New Look: Fewer Warheads, No Treaty ; Bush and Putin Pledge Arms Cuts, but Some Key Details Are Unresolved

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The US and Russia have now pledged that they will carry out perhaps the deepest warhead cuts of the atomic age. But pledged is not the same as done, and details left unresolved after Russian President Vladimir Putin's White House visit might loom large in the months and years to come.

Just look at the tough messages Putin slipped into his generally warm remarks at his joint press conference with President George Bush.

We like the idea of massive weapons reductions, said Putin. But we like written treaties, too. In particular, we still like the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - the very pact that for months President Bush has been calling a dead letter.

The bottom line: The US sees the nuclear future as paperless, with two friendly nations no longer needing treaties to bind them. Russia still wants the assurance of an overall nuclear-treaty regime. Whatever the agreement on weapon numbers, the disagreement on this important point needs to be resolved if the relationship between the two nations is to match the rhetoric of their leaders.

"This [warhead] agreement [raises] a host of questions - if you can call it an agreement," says Christopher Paine, a research associate in nuclear issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

It's possible that the final word on Putin's near-term intentions has not been written. Perhaps the two presidents will now announce a further dramatic breakthrough on missile defenses and related nuclear issues at the dramatic locale of Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Furthermore, the nuclear accomplishments of Putin's US visit are already significant.

The two sides pledged to reduce their respective nuclear stockpiles by approximately two-thirds over the next decade. For the US, that would mean a range of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads, said Bush.

That's similar to the range of warhead levels discussed by President Bill Clinton and Russia President Boris Yeltsin in 1997 talks about a notional Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) III. It goes well beyond the 3,000 to 3,500 limits set by the START II pact, which was signed by President George H. W. Bush and Mr. Yeltsin in 1993.

Indeed, the lower end of Bush's announced range is well below the warhead levels that Adm. Richard Mies, head of US Strategic Command, said during a congressional appearance earlier this year were necessary to ensure US security.

START II has never gone into effect, since political difficulties in both Russia and the US clogged up the legislative ratification process. And that's the beauty part of the unilateral cuts envisioned by Bush, say US officials. They won't get derailed by peripheral issues. They'll be clean and simple. No large negotiating delegations will live in plush neutral cities like Geneva and take months arguing over minute points of Subsection C, Protocol 14. …