U.S. Must Act To Secure Russia’s Tactical Weapons

Posted February 12, 2003 at 4:12pm

With each passing day, the United States apparently moves closer to a war to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. While our nation is rightfully focused on the seemingly inevitable military action in Iraq and the elevated threat of terrorist attacks, there is one question that has received insufficient national attention: How do we keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists in the first place?

Although for the most part its work has gone unnoticed by the news media, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been toiling for many months to address this question.

In May 2002, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Treaty of Moscow. It requires both sides to cut by two-thirds their number of operationally deployed long-range nuclear weapons, over a 10-year period. That agreement is an important step in the right direction, but much more is required to make certain that Russia’s weapons of mass destruction are not acquired by those who would threaten the United States or its friends and allies with catastrophic terrorism.

During the committee’s hearings on the Treaty of Moscow, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) rightly said: “We have a window of opportunity to reduce the threat of former Soviet weapons of mass destruction.”

To its credit, the Foreign Relations panel seized that opportunity. Under the leadership of Sens. Lugar and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the committee unanimously approved a strong resolution of ratification that includes a number of conditions and declarations to increase overall U.S. national security.

One of the most important of these conditions requires the president to submit to the Senate an annual report on the amount of Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction financial assistance Russia will need to meet its obligations under the treaty. As Lugar noted, “Without U.S. assistance Russia cannot meet the timetable of its obligations under this treaty. Without Nunn-Lugar it is likely the benefits of this treaty will be postponed or never realized.” The U.S. government must also ensure that delays in implementing Nunn-Lugar programs, as occurred last year, never happen again.

Also, the committee has required the White House to annually provide the Senate the necessary information so that treaty implementation can be monitored closely. Concerns were expressed during the hearings that the brief, three-page agreement did not contain adequate verification provisions. This report echoes President Ronald Reagan’s imperative to “trust but verify.”

The committee also took steps to address the threat posed by Russia’s nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons. It is widely acknowledged that these pose an unacceptably high risk of theft or diversion. The treaty now calls upon the president to work closely with and provide assistance to Russia on the full accounting, safety and security of the Russian tactical nuclear weapon stockpile.

And, finally, the committee adopted a declaration encouraging the president to continue efforts with Russia to reduce strategic offensive nuclear weapons to as low a level as possible without jeopardizing national security interests. As Biden said during the hearings, this agreement should not be “the end of the ride.” Let’s hope he is right.

So, does the treaty and its resolution of ratification answer all concerns about weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of those who wish our nation deadly harm? Certainly not — but, like the treaty itself, the committee’s actions are commendable.

Most importantly, the committee made sure that the president understood the importance of maintaining strong levels of assistance for Nunn-Lugar threat reduction programs. At a time when the United States is spending billions of dollars to protect the homeland, it also makes sense to commit the appropriate funds for programs addressing problems of unsecured weapons — nuclear, chemical and biological.

The Senate must now act quickly to give its approval to the resolution — and Congress and the administration must make sure that they back up their rhetoric with real resources. Failure to do so jeopardizes all our lives.

Karl F. Inderfurth is senior adviser to the Nuclear Threat Reduction Campaign. He served as assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration.