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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Looking Back on One Hell of a Summit

WASHINGTON -- Isn't it a huge improvement that we've agreed to take about 7,000 nuclear warheads off ballistic missiles? Because soon we'll have just 4,400 warheads aimed at each other, which is a completely different story.

Before, we could each destroy about 5,500 targets in the other's country. But in about 10 years we'll each only be able to destroy at most 2,200 targets. Phew, what a relief!

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So for Russia, a nuclear exchange will soon mean at most losing Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Vladivostok, Omsk, Tomsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Vladikavkaz, Oryol, Ryazan, Pyatigorsk, Magnitogorsk, Lipetsk, Arkhangelsk and about 2,185 other targets.

And the worst America can expect going toe-to-toe with the Russkies will be to lose New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Des Moines, Cleveland, Juneau, Philadelphia, and about 2,185 more targets.

Granted, no one is planning to go toe-to-toe with anyone. And even if one did, there are few scenarios in which one launches all one's missiles, because those sneaky Chinese are still out there, so some nukes would be held back. Others might fail, or hit targets at sea.

Then again, even if a few dozen of our 4,400 nukes were exchanged, it would be enough to cause unprecedented panic and death across vast swathes of our national territories.

So thank goodness for the summit.

True, not much was done about hundreds of missiles left on hair-trigger alert. Should early-warning systems report an incoming attack, the U.S. government allows itself a healthy 22 minutes to decide whether to nuke the enemy. The Russian government allows itself six minutes. There was that time in 1995 when Norway launched a scientific rocket and President Boris Yeltsin was warned the United States might be attacking. But that turned out all right in the end. As did the fire last May that cut Russia off from four of its military satellites.

And then there are those, ahem, other warheads, the ones not loaded on missiles, like those "suitcase nukes" once described by the late General Alexander Lebed as "missing." We didn't hear much about them at the summit, but all told they come to another 23,000 or so. (No one knows for sure: The Cold War practice was to count and admit to missiles, not warheads.)

Had our leaders put our collective arsenals on the table, they could have discussed a total of 33,500 nuclear weapons -- 11,000 of them American and 22,500 or so of them Russian, according to the Washington-based Arms Control Association. (To put it into perspective, runner-up China has about 400 nukes, 250 of them loaded on missiles, according to the Center for Defense Information.)

Reducing this collective 33,000-plus warhead arsenal would have been smart and responsible. Few insist we need such a stockpile and many military experts argue we could do with far less. A Brookings Institution study three years ago asserted the United States could get by with just 200 nukes. (Russians eager to go toe-to-toe against that arsenal would need the stomach to risk Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Vladivostok, Omsk, Tomsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Vladikavkaz, Oryol, Ryazan, Pyatigorsk, Magnitogorsk, Lipetsk, Arkhangelsk, and about 185 more targets.)

But still, what a summit that was. And the good thing about any summit is that we're all still talking, still at the table, still "working together." Because if the summit had collapsed in acrimony, or under the weight of public ridicule, then ... then ... why, we'd have had to hold another summit.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].