Ending the Cold War Once and For All

Pavel Podvig, “Ending the Cold War Once and For All”, NYU Global Beat Syndicate, November 15, 2001


Pavel Podvig

Global Beat Syndicate, 15 November 2001 (published article)

MOSCOW -- The terrorist attacks against the United States have placed U.S.-Russian relations on promising new footing that may help both countries overcome the differences they inherited from Cold War days. Presidents Bush and Putin are now talking about slashing their nuclear arsenals as they work to reach understandings on the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Suddenly, after much mutual suspicion, both countries seem optimistic about their ability to cooperate on issues of international security.

With these new opportunities, however, come new challenges. We have seen promising signs of rapprochement between the two countries before. Unfortunately, many unraveled into a series of misunderstandings and disappointments. This time, the window of opportunity is probably larger than it has ever been before. But it is not without limits, requiring serious efforts by Washington and Moscow to make sure their cold war legacy does not overshadow the real security problems.

There are at least several issues in the U.S.-Russian strategic relationships that remain unresolved and Bush and Putin will have to resolve if they want to move forward to closer security cooperation.

First, despite the willingness of both leaders to cut nuclear arsenals to around 2,000 warheads each, the number of nuclear weapons that would remain in service is still far larger than any country would ever need. Thus, the task of further reducing the size of nuclear forces remains as important today as it has been before.

Second, to make deep reductions of nuclear weapons possible, the United States and Russia must find a way to ensure their irreversibility. This is particularly important in the current situation, where Bush is proposing the reductions should be done unilaterally. Without a mechanism that can verify the elimination of nuclear warheads, progress in reducing nuclear forces may prove extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The question of irreversibility is also closely linked to the task of ensuring the safety and security of nuclear weapons. The potential vulnerability of Russian nuclear weapons (as well as chemical and biological ones) is usually considered one of the biggest dangers to international security. The best and the most effective way to address this issue - and to help Russia secure its stock of nuclear materials -- is to create a framework of transparent warhead dismantlement arrangements that would cover nuclear arsenals of both countries.

The final challenge to the U.S.-Russian relation is the uncertainty that surrounds U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses and the future of the ABM Treaty. A solution to the ABM problem is long overdue. Washington and Moscow already have spent many years debating the merits of a system that does not seem to able to intercept missiles and that most likely will never be built. It is time to move past this issue and find a mutually acceptable solution that would allow Russia and the United States to concentrate on more important problems of their security, rather than keep them arguing over missile defenses.

As we can see, despite the progress that Bush and Putin have made so far, the legacy of the Cold War is very difficult to leave behind. But there is nothing today that prevents them from meeting these challenges and building a foundation for new cooperation on international security issues.