U.S., Russia Tackle Nuclear Cuts in 2-Day Talks

Two days of talks between Russian and U.S. military officials began Tuesday in Washington, with plans for joint reductions in nuclear arms promising to be one of the more explosive items on the agenda.

Russia opposes U.S. plans to store, not destroy, at least some of the thousands of warheads it has agreed to cut, and it wants a formal treaty on the cuts pledged last year by Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush.

U.S. Congressman Curt Weldon, who was in Moscow on Tuesday, reiterated the Bush administration's position that the relationship between the two countries has changed so as to make a treaty unnecessary.

"When we deal with the British or French, we don't have to write down how many items we have," Weldon, a senior member of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "We're friends."

But the Foreign Ministry has said Russia wants a treaty that would make the cuts irreversible.

At their meetings in November, Bush promised to reduce the U.S. arsenal of about 7,000 strategic warheads down to between 1,700 and 2,200, while Putin promised to cut Russia's arsenal of about 6,000 to between 1,500 and 2,200.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense J.D. Crouch alarmed Moscow last week when he said the Pentagon has plans to store at least some of the warheads for possible emergency redeployment.

But more important to Russia than the destination of the warheads is what happens to the delivery vehicles -- the nuclear missiles and bombers -- said Alexander Pikayev, co-chair of the nonproliferation program at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "This is the key question," Pikayev said. "Russia wants them to be destroyed or modified in a way that would prevent the U.S. from rapidly uploading the [stored] warheads."

If the United States stores both the warheads and delivery vehicles, its arms reduction will be useless, said Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments.

"It would be more of a de-alerting," he said. "The U.S. would be able to install the warheads back on the missiles in a matter of weeks, maybe days."

U.S. officials have not spelled out what would happen to the warheads' delivery vehicles. Under past nuclear arms control treaties, which did not specify the treatment of dismantled warheads, Russia and the United States used them for various purposes. During the Cold War, both countries used the fissile materials from them to manufacture new weapons. Afterward, when the demand for more nuclear arms ceased, Russia and the United States used or sold the plutonium and uranium extracted from the warheads. Both have also stored some of their dismantled warheads.

What Russia will do with the thousands of nuclear warheads it has pledged to dismantle remains uncertain. It may be cheaper and safer for Russia to do what the United States is doing and store the actual warheads rather than process the plutonium and uranium, experts said. Both options, however, require the funding and construction of storage facilities and security.

This week's meeting is likely to lay these issues on the table. When the talks started Tuesday, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith met privately with Colonel General Yury Baluyevsky, first deputy of the General Staff, who is leading the Russian delegation, and then they joined their teams in a third-floor conference room at the Pentagon, Reuters reported from Washington.

No details of this round of talks were expected before they were completed late Wednesday. Baluyevsky said before leaving Moscow that the aim was to reach an agreement on the arms cuts before Bush visits Moscow later this spring.

Also on the agenda this week are prospective joint military exercises and possible cooperation against new terrorism threats, The Associated Press reported, citing a senior official in the Bush administration.

Weldon said Tuesday that the United States and Russia should work together on missile defense to protect themselves from countries such as North Korea and China, AP reported.

"Russia wrote the book on missile defense systems," Weldon said, citing the missile shield that protects Moscow.

U.S. and Russian Nuclear Warhead Stockpiles

January 2001
United States Russia
Strategic 7,206 5,606
Tactical 1,670 3,590
Spares 500 n.a.
Subtotal 9,376 9,196
Active Reserve (1) ~2,500 n.a.
Inactive Reserve (1) ~2,500 n.a.
Subtotal ~5,000 ~13,500
Total 14,376 (2) ~22,500*

*Russia's plans for its nonoperational warheads, many of which are from tactical weapons, are not known. A senior Nuclear Power Ministry official stated in September 1997 that Russia was dismantling well more than 2,000 warheads a year.
Source: Arms Control Association, Washington