Take Russia’s ‘Yes’ for an Answer

Pavel Podvig and Frank von Hippel, “Take Russia’s ‘Yes’ for an Answer: Bush and Putin can eliminate unneeded nuclear arsenals”, NYU Global Beat Syndicate, March 18, 2002

Pavel Podvig and Frank von Hippel

Global Beat Syndicate, 18 March 2002 (published article)

MOSCOW--The forthcoming May summit between Presidents Bush and Putin presents a real opportunity to increase the security of the nuclear warheads and materials left over from the Cold War and to begin elimination of thousands of excess nuclear weapons.

Long term concerns about the security of Russia's fissile materials have now been compounded by the fear that some terrorist groups would use nuclear weapons if they could acquire them. Yet Washington's ability to provide assistance to Moscow to secure its nuclear weapons and materials has been very limited, primarily because of Russia's reluctance to provide the necessary access to its nuclear complex. Now the United States has before it a Russian proposal to include measures for destruction of excess nuclear warheads in the upcoming arms reduction agreement. Such measures would both reduce the number of stored warheads at risk of theft and provide an opening for the essential upgrades in Russian nuclear security. The United States should do everything to make this proposal a reality.

The United States and Russia have already agreed to reduce the numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. What remains to be resolved at the summit is how irreversible these reductions will be. The new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review calls for maintaining a "responsive" capability that would allow the U.S. arsenal to be rebuilt from the proposed 1700-2200 deployed strategic warheads to over 5,000 warheads. Russia cannot afford to maintain a similar expansion capability and insists that provisions for ns be included in the summit agreement that make nuclear reductions irreversible. This issue has become so prominent in Russia's public position that a failure to address it could seriously undermine support within Russia for President Putin's policy of cooperation with the United States.

This need not happen. The United States should take "yes" for an answer and give Russia the irreversibility it calls for. Russia's current advocacy of warhead dismantlement represents a profound change in its attitude toward nuclear reductions. All previous Russian responses to U.S. proposals for warhead elimination were limited to destroying only the reentry shield of missile warheads, allowing re-use of the nuclear components in new weapons. And until now, Russia has consistently opposed measures that would bring transparency to the process of warhead dismantlement. But this new opening and important global security opportunity will not last very long. The nearer we get to the summit, the louder are the voices of those within Russia's security apparatus who oppose any deal that could potentially open up Russia's nuclear complex to greater scrutiny.

At the upcoming summit, President Bush should therefore propose a joint commitment to dismantle with verification a significant portion of those warheads that will be removed from missiles and bombers as part of the proposed reductions. This commitment could cover several hundred to several thousand warheads in each country.

Finding warheads to dismantle will not be very difficult in either country. The current U.S. stockpile contains many more nuclear warheads and bombs than any responsive force will ever be able to accommodate. At the top of the list of warheads that could be eliminated are about 600 old W62 warheads, half of which are still deployed on Minuteman III intercontinental missiles. These warheads lack modern safety systems and are slated for elimination anyway. The United States could also eliminate 400 additional warheads that would be unnecessary as a result of the planned conversion of the Minuteman IIIs from three warheads to one each. There would still be a complete set of different backup warheads in case something went wrong with the deployed warheads. There will also be over 900 excess warheads as a result of the planned conversion of four Trident II submarines to cruise-missile carriers.

Because missile and submarine obsolescence will leave Russia with very little missile capacity where it could redeploy its downloaded warheads, the case for Russian warhead elimination is even stronger.

The technical groundwork for non-intrusive monitoring of nuclear warhead dismantlement and storage and disposal of the recovered fissile materials has been laid in studies carried out jointly by the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapon laboratories. Resolving remaining technical and legal issues may still require considerable effort, but the two presidents could signal their political decision to move ahead by coupling their agreement on reductions of deployed nuclear warheads with a joint statement on warhead elimination. This would make the May summit both a guaranteed success and an encouraging first step toward securing and reducing the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.


Pavel Podvig is a Researcher at the Center for Arms Control at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and editor of the book "Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces"; Frank N. von Hippel, a Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, is a former Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. (eds. 1993-4)