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U.S. Shift Clouds Arms Deal

Defense: Decision to store, rather than destroy, warheads undermines hopes for an accord with Russia. Any pact must be 'irreversible,' a Kremlin official says.

January 13, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Hopes for a new U.S.-Russian arms deal have been suddenly clouded by an American decision to store, rather than destroy, some of the thousands of warheads Washington plans to withdraw from active deployment, U.S. and Russian officials say.

Even as negotiators prepared to begin work on an agreement, the Pentagon disclosed in a major report on nuclear forces last week that it wants to hold on to the weapons as a hedge against new threats to U.S. security. Defense officials said that in light of the world's uncertainties and dangers, they need to be able to rebuild U.S. nuclear forces in a relatively short time.

President Bush began promising during the 2000 presidential campaign that he intended to move past the United States' dangerous Cold War relationship with Russia, in which each side maintained thousands of warheads to deter the other from nuclear attack. He said he planned to "leave the Cold War behind" and late last year announced with fanfare plans to unilaterally reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal of deployed warheads from 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200.

But Russian officials have pointed out that a new arms deal would have little meaning if the warheads taken off submarines, missiles and bombers could be redeployed in weeks or months.

Any deal must be "irreversible, so that strategic defensive arms will be reduced not [just] on paper," Alexander Yakovenko, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said last week.

A Pentagon official, J. D. Crouch, insisted that though some of the warheads will not be destroyed, their decommissioning will have a "very positive benefit" because it will mean that fewer weapons will be armed and available for use in a crisis. And he said he believed that the Russians "will be doing a very similar thing."

A senior U.S. official who asked to remain unidentified said the American side hopes to work out a written agreement in the latest talks, which are scheduled to begin in Washington this week. The official said the American side intends to find a solution that will be verifiable and "transparent" to Russian negotiators.

But nuclear arms analysts in both countries say the U.S. move has made it far less likely that the Russians will be offered the kind of terms they can accept.

Bush administration officials have made clear that they would prefer to have no treaty agreement, lest it limit their options. The president has agreed at Russia's urging to try to work out some kind of written document to codify the arms reduction plan he and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin reached in an oral agreement in November.

But analysts say the Russians may have a hard time acceding to any deal knowing that the Americans will continue to have an uncertain number of warheads in storage. There are believed to be several thousand U.S. warheads already stockpiled.

The existence of the warheads may also make it less likely that the Russians will agree to further unilateral reductions in their arsenal, as the Americans have hoped, analysts say.

"If the U.S. retains more missiles, so will Russia," predicted Charles Pena, a defense analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute think tank in Washington. "And the Chinese will likely view the entire U.S. strategic arsenal, not just deployed weapons, as a threat and act accordingly."

He called the move "an accounting sleight of hand, bad arms control and bad policy."

Pena also argued that if the Russians follow the U.S. model and put their warheads in stockpiles, the weapons may be unsafe. Hence, "taking the U.S. weapons off operational deployment without destroying them could possibly lessen U.S. security rather than enhancing it," he said.

Analysts predict that the U.S. move could also cause the Russian military to increase pressure on Putin to take a tougher line against the U.S.

The Russian military leadership has been strongly behind Putin, even though he raised only mild objections in December when U.S. officials announced their plans to abrogate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

The treaty sought to block a further buildup of missiles by barring the two countries from deploying national antimissile systems.

The American decision to keep its warheads in stockpiles rather than destroy them comes after a year in which the Bush administration has drastically reshaped strategic security policy.

Officials have announced that they intend to leave or ignore arms control treaties and proposals that they believe bind the United States while allowing other countries to cheat.

They have announced plans to build a multibillion-dollar antimissile defense system even as they insist on preserving their option to rebuild an offensive arsenal.

U.S. officials said in last week's nuclear review that although they intend to continue to observe the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, they want to reduce the time it would take to prepare a test if they decided to end the 10-year-old moratorium.

They have also left open the possibility that they might seek to develop a new kind of "penetrator" nuclear bomb that could be used to destroy the deeply buried bunkers that more and more countries are building as a defense against U.S. air power.

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