The debate about a new nuclear arms control agreement between the
United States and Russia has devolved into a tug-of-war in Washington
between those who call it an essential first step toward global nuclear
disarmament, and others who fear constraining American capabilities in
a dangerous world.
With Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev expected to sign a
final document within weeks, and ratification required to bring the
treaty into force, the U.S. Senate is set to become ground zero in a
contest between those on opposite sides of the administration’s broader
But arguments from
both hawks and doves have missed an urgent point: that without a new
treaty, Washington will be unable to manage the risks associated with
Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal, which still poses the single greatest
existential threat to the United States.
around 4,000 deployed nuclear warheads, a staggering 1,000 tons of
weapons-grade nuclear material, hundreds of deployed ballistic missiles
and thousands of experts with the knowledge to construct such systems
from scratch, Russia is still potentially the world’s nuclear
supermarket. Agreements governing these arsenals are essential to
preventing the many national security nightmares of nuclear
proliferation to rogue states and terrorist groups from becoming
realities. To protect America, we must agree to, and verify, limits on
what the Russians have, know how they are using it, and take adequate
steps to ensure that devastating weapons and dangerous materials remain
safe from terrorist theft.
As of Dec. 5, 2009, when the 1991
START agreement expired, we lack any enforceable, verifiable treaty to
provide that level of information. We need a new treaty in force not
only to plug holes left gaping by the old treaty’s expiration, but also
to increase our security by imposing further limits on what new nuclear
weapons the Russians can develop and deploy.
A successor to
START would likely lower the maximum number of deployed strategic
nuclear warheads allowed to between 1,500 and 1,675 on each side —
still enough to destroy the world many times over, but far below the
6,000 allowed under the old treaty. Strategic delivery vehicles —
missiles, bombers and nuclear missile submarines — will be further cut
from 1,600 to around 800. Reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal and taking
missile launchers in both countries off alert reduces the likelihood of
accidental nuclear war, keeping Americans safer.
permanent reductions in the Russian nuclear arsenal will dramatically
reduce the number of targets for potential theft or diversion of
nuclear technology to terrorists. Over the past two decades, the U.S.
has invested at least $10 billion to ensure security for Russian and
former Soviet nuclear material, technologies, facilities, and
individual experts under the auspices of the “Nunn-Lugar” Cooperative
Threat Reduction and other bilateral and multilateral programs.
programs have helped to deactivate over 7,500 former Soviet nuclear
warheads, destroy over 2,000 missiles, and eliminate over 1,100 missile
launchers. But without a comprehensive U.S.-Russian arms control
agreement in place, steps like these could be totally nullified by
production of new nuclear materials, weapons and launchers without any
U.S. or international monitoring.
Even after a new treaty
enters into force, the U.S. and Russia will possess the world’s largest
nuclear arsenals by a wide margin. And as long as nuclear weapons
exist, leaders across the political spectrum concur, the U.S. must
maintain the world’s strongest, safest and most reliable arsenal. Yet
in addition to reducing the size of the threat itself, a new agreement
would be beneficial for increasing regular engagement between the U.S.
and Russia on strategic issues, which will help build mutual
understanding, and avert needless suspicion and conflict.
decades after the end of the Cold War, Americans and Russians are
increasingly intertwined in global financial and energy markets, and we
share immediate and vital national security interests in preventing
terrorism, state failure and drug trafficking throughout the Eurasian
Yet our communication on security issues has been in
dangerous decline for the past decade. In a sense, this should come as
no surprise, since the most recent comprehensive U.S.-Russian security
treaty was actually signed by the United States and the Soviet Union,
which no longer exists.
Any “reset” that puts U.S.-Russian
relations on a more productive footing will depend first and foremost
on forging a durable bilateral agreement to replace START. Arms control
is not in itself a solution to U.S.-Russian tensions, or a guarantee of
security from the nuclear terror threat, but if history is any guide,
it is where we must begin.
Rojansky is executive
director of the Partnership for a Secure America. Collins is director
of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, and served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997