WASHINGTON — Abandoning the "trust but verify" mantra of previous Republican administrations, President Bush is determined to hammer out an arms reduction deal with the Russians that would be sealed with a handshake and maybe a brief communique instead of a thousand-page treaty like those of the past.
The plan, which White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice discussed in Moscow this week, is raising the anxiety level among top military leaders in both the U.S. and Russia, who instinctively recoil at placing so much trust in nations that were their enemies for most of their lifetimes.
The strategy has also upended the ideological assumptions that Americans held during the Cold War. Staunch conservatives, who distrusted the Russians with a passion, now say the Russians can be trusted, albeit with constant wariness. Liberals, who urged negotiations then, now warn that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin might have a hidden agenda and that Bush is being entirely too friendly toward him.
Bush and Putin agreed at their summit in Genoa, Italy, on Sunday to consult on both offensive and defensive strategic weaponry. After months of talk by Bush about missile defense, the Genoa talks in effect revived the two countries' traditional emphasis on mutual reduction of deadly nuclear bombs.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Friday that as a result of Rice's consultations this week, "this is no longer a discussion of whether we will move forward as two nations, Russia and the United States, on a new strategic framework, but when."
Fleischer said that military experts from the two countries will meet early next month in Washington and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will visit Moscow on Aug. 14 to continue the talks.
The administration's objective, officials say, is for both countries to impose deep cuts in their offensive forces without the elaborate enforcement mechanisms used earlier. As part of the package, Bush will insist on Russian acquiescence in scrapping or radically changing the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty to allow the United States to go ahead with its missile defense plans.
U.S. officials expect Putin to accept the package despite his outspoken opposition to Bush's missile defense plans. Indeed, last November, the Russian president proposed sharp mutual reductions in offensive weapons to the Clinton administration--although those would have been subject to verification.
Bush and his top aides argue that the United States and Russia are no longer implacable foes and thus should no longer be controlled by the Cold War assumption that a balance of terror, in which neither side could expect to prevail by force of arms, is the best way to prevent war. That assumption led to the ABM Treaty and to a series of pacts intended to keep offensive nuclear capabilities in a rough parity.
"What we are talking about doing is changing the mind-set of the world," Bush said after his meeting with Putin. "We're basically saying the Cold War is forever over."
Even if the Cold War is over, however, the military posture that resulted from it is not.
The U.S. and Russia maintain more than 13,000 nuclear warheads--7,200 for the United States and 5,800 for Russia--that are mounted on missiles or ready to be loaded into bombers, poised for almost instant use. Although former Presidents Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin agreed several years ago to stop aiming their weapons at each other, experts say re-targeting would take only a matter of minutes.
In addition to the deployed warheads, both countries have weapons in storage. The total U.S. arsenal is about 10,500 warheads; Russia's is about 20,000.
Of course, there are other nuclear powers. China has about 410 nuclear weapons, France about 350, Britain about 185, India and Pakistan perhaps a handful each. But with the United States and Russia maintaining more than 99% of the world's stock, nuclear arms reduction must begin with those countries or it will not happen.
Bush has frequently stated his objective of cutting offensive nuclear forces. The administration has also made clear its impatience with traditional arms control negotiations.
"There's a problem with treaties: They are terribly time-consuming," said Richard Haass, the State Department's policy planning chief.
"Treaties are quite useful for reflecting or locking in . . . fixed plateaus" but are too sluggish to deal with fast-changing issues, he said.
There is no debate about that. On Jan. 3, 1993, a little more than two weeks before Clinton was sworn in, Bush's father, President George Bush, and Yeltsin signed a pact, popularly known as START II, calling for the United States and Russia to cut their offensive weapons by more than half, to 3,500 warheads for the United States and 3,000 for Russia. That pact has never been fully ratified and has not taken effect--at least in part because both countries have independent and not always malleable legislative bodies.