How Russia Views Nuclear Disarmament - and Why It May Resist

Article excerpt

President Barack Obama is urging Russia to move decisively beyond the cold war paradigm by negotiating a new round of arms reductions that would slash the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed by the US and Russia by one-third. It's a bold proposal that builds on a lot of historical success in the field of arms control. But it's not likely to be met with much enthusiasm in Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin has made anti-Americanism a central theme of his third presidential term, and the Russian military is extremely dubious about any further cuts in their already-overstretched nuclear deterrent. Why is Obama proposing this idea now? He's pitching it as part of the Global Nuclear Zero, a grand scheme supported by Mr. Obama and about 300 other world leaders to promote policies that will decrease and eventually eliminate atomic weapons from the Earth.

Even if it should prove unrealizable, it's an alluring idea that Obama may hope will focus public support and drive practical efforts to reduce the nuclear danger and build greater trust - especially between the US and Russia, who still own well over 90 percent of the world's existing nuclear weapons. During the cold war, the US and USSR signed a series of landmark arms-control treaties that tamed the nuclear "balance of terror" and went a long way toward stabilizing relations between two confrontational superpowers that held enough mega-tonnage between them to destroy the world many times over.

Early in his first term, Obama ended a long diplomatic chill with the Russians by engaging them in successful negotiations for the New START strategic arms reduction accord, which cut nuclear missile forces on both sides by almost half. Obama hopes to repeat that hat trick and arrest the current slide in US-Russia relations by enticing Moscow into a new, publicly popular round of nuclear arms- slashing. How many nuclear weapons are there? Under the terms of the New START treaty, the US and Russia are each allowed 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, which means weapons that have intercontinental reach because they're based on long-range bombers, submarines, and missiles. Under Obama's fresh proposal, both sides would have to scale down to about 1,000 each.

But that's just the tip of the atomic iceberg. In addition, both sides maintain hundreds of "tactical" nuclear warheads, which are much harder to identify because they tend to be small and portable: for use in artillery shells, depth charges, short-range missiles, and other ordnance that's difficult to distinguish from conventional counterparts. According to the nonpartisan Arms Control Association, the US has about 500 of those, deployed on ships and at US military bases around the world, while Russia maintains around 2,000.

Seven other nuclear-armed powers, who have never been included in any arms control deals, hold significant numbers of warheads and increasingly sophisticated means of delivering them. …