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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Veteran Delivers Weapons Warning

APGorbachev receiving an ovation at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts -- The entire architecture of strategic arms control could come tumbling down soon if Moscow and Washington fail to reach agreements on U.S. missile defense plans and adapting Cold War treaties to current realities, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said.

"If there is no movement forward, then a rollback begins sooner or later," Gorbachev told a nuclear arms control conference at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Gorbachev cautioned that economic ties would start to suffer if the two sides remained at loggerheads, and he painted an apocalyptic picture for the longer term.

"If the processes in the nuclear sphere continue as they are now, 100 years from now humankind will be no more," he said.

The trouble, Gorbachev said, lies with a lack of progress in negotiations over U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe as well as the extension of the Strategic Arms Control Treaty, or START, which expires in 2009.

Gorbachev said he was concerned that upcoming presidential elections in Russia and the United States "will lead to a pause in negotiations on START, and another pillar of arms control will collapse as a result."

Moscow has been pushing Washington to negotiate the extension of START and to limit its missile defense plans in Europe. START provides the verification regime for the three-page Moscow Treaty, which Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush signed in 2002 to reduce the number of nuclear warheads on duty. Russian officials say the U.S. administration has been reluctant to start talks, a reflection of Bush's expressed hesitance to constrain decision making by new treaties.

The main bone of contention, however, are U.S. plans to deploy the missile defense system in Eastern Europe, said Gorbachev, whose hour-long speech Tuesday began and ended with a standing ovation.

"A remilitarization of thinking is under way in the nuclear sphere," he told the audience of more than 50 policymakers and scholars from the United States, Russia and other countries.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington on Wednesday of withdrawing from a plan that would allow the Russians to constantly monitor the planned missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and of rejecting an idea to jointly evaluate threats that would trigger activation of the shield.

"There has been a serious rollback from what we were told," Lavrov said, speaking ahead of a meeting Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Gorbachev said distrust was growing on both sides of the ocean and blamed the U.S. leadership for most of the regress.

"A lot astounds me in U.S. foreign policy," he said, accusing Washington of suffering from "the syndrome of a victor" in the Cold War and carrying out "arrogant" and "unipolar actions" to undermine international institutions, including the United Nations and its Security Council.

Gorbachev said Moscow and Washington should not just agree to extend the treaties that he signed on Moscow's behalf but adapt them to post-Cold War realities. "It is impossible to live on infinitely with the old stock," he said.

Gorbachev also called for the continued meticulous system of verification of how signatories comply with the treaties. In a clear sign of his critical attitude toward the Bush administration's reluctance to negotiate verification regimes, he reminded the audience of how Ronald Reagan's administration had pushed for verification regimes in Cold War-era treaties. Reagan even once cited the Russian proverb of "trust, but verify" during negotiations, Gorbachev noted.

Both U.S. and Russian participants concurred with Gorbachev's bleak assessment of the current state of affairs and the dire consequences of the widening split between the two powers.

"If we remain on our current course, then we are going to go over a cliff," Graham Allison, director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Wednesday, the last day of the two-day forum.

"There will be not just nuclear arms proliferation, but eventually nuclear terrorism and even nuclear wars," he said.

Allison, who served as assistant defense secretary in the 1990s, expressed doubt that the Bush administration would heed calls to urgently begin a meaningful dialogue on arms control issues. He said he expected the next U.S. administration to be more responsive.

Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov, said the strategic arms control architecture was already crumbling. "There is still time, but it is running out very quickly," he said in an interview.

Vladimir Dvorkin, a leading Russian expert on nuclear arms, said the threat of a collapse was very real.

"It will become a reality if the two sides do not begin to negotiate in earnest," he said.

He said negotiations should primarily focus on the U.S. missile defense plans and the extension of START.

Like Gorbachev, Dvorkin said the two sides should not negotiate to extend Cold War-era treaties but aim for new ones. "The time of 500-page documents is gone," he said.