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Re-START Nuclear Weapons Reductions
Strong Public Support for Deep Cuts
September 23, 1999

The Clinton Administration will have to move quickly and decisively to reach agreement with Russia if it wants to achieve real progress on reducing the massive nuclear arsenals built up during the Cold War. Following an agreement at the June 10 meeting of Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, the United States and Russia have resumed discussions on START III, as well as parallel talks on possible modifications to the ABM Treaty. However, mere "discussions" have no hope of reaching agreement before elections in 2000 end the terms of both Presidents. To have a chance of success, the two countries must reach an accord before President Yeltsin leaves office next summer, or the opportunity may be lost for years.

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The Clinton Administration would have the backing of the public in pushing for START III, and even deeper nuclear arms reductions. The most recent opinion survey shows Americans believe that reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons should be the goal of U.S. nuclear policy. More than 4 in 10 Americans (44%) believe that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons should be the U.S. policy goal, up from 36% in 1997. Another 26% say that reduction of these weapons should be the goal. The 1999 poll, commissioned by the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, reveals that support for the elimination and reduction crosses partisan lines with 62% of Republicans in favor of elimination (35%) or reduction (27%) and 75% of Democrats in favor of elimination (49%) or reduction (26%). (The Mellman Group, 1997 and 1999. For the 1999 poll, statistical margin of error for the sample as a whole is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.)

Even with strong public support, it will take a focused U.S. effort to reach agreement on START III. For six years, the nuclear disarmament process has been stuck; the Clinton Administration does not have a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia to its credit. While circumstances have made progress difficult, this outcome reflects a lack of will in the Clinton Administration, as well as in Congress. Most importantly, the Clinton Administration has unwisely refused to begin full-scale negotiations on START III until the Russian Duma ratifies START II.

From the other side, Congress has frozen nuclear force levels at dangerously high levels by mandating that the United States maintain START I force levels and alert status until the Duma ratifies START II. This provision, originally intended to encourage Duma ratification, has now locked in both U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal levels. As a result, both nations still possess over 13,000 strategic nuclear weapons (US: 7,200; Russia: 6,000), many of which remain on Cold War-era "hair-trigger" alert status. This means that both sides can deliver over 4,000 nuclear bombs within 30 minutes. While Russian and U.S. troops patrol Bosnia side by side, this situation is needlessly dangerous.

To break this impasse, the United States and Russia should agree to a START III treaty as soon as possible, preferably early in 2000. The Treaty should achieve reductions below the 2,000-2,500 levels set in the 1997 Helsinki framework agreement. At last month's discussions in Moscow, Russian officials proposed ceilings of no more than 1,500 strategic warheads for each nation. Even further reductions, down to a ceiling of 1,000 strategic warheads, would still leave the U.S. and Russia with arsenals well in excess of what is needed to deter attack.

Agreeing on a 1,000 warhead ceiling would have other benefits, including helping prospects for Duma ratification of START II. China, the United Kingdom, and France would be more willing to join multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations with U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at that level.

The ABM Treaty and Nuclear Reductions
Both Clinton Administration and Russian officials have repeatedly stated that the ABM Treaty remains the "cornerstone of strategic stability." Russian officials have made clear that maintaining this Treaty is essential to the START process, and have adamantly opposed changing it. Grigory Berdennikov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's security department, was quoted in the August 20 Washington Post saying modifying the ABM Treaty could force Russia "to raise the effectiveness of its strategic nuclear armed forces." Thus, the United States should not suggest any changes to the ABM Treaty that might prompt Russia to slow or reverse reductions in its nuclear arsenal, or push China to accelerate or expand its nuclear weapons modernization program. China’s current strategic arsenal consists of fewer than two dozen, single-warhead land-based missiles that are not fueled. However, it is slowly developing more advanced missiles with multiple warheads.

START III and US Interests
Reaching agreement on START III is critical for US security, and should not be held up by START II. As former Senator Sam Nunn, Bush-era national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, and former Undersecretary of State Andrew Kanter write in the September 13 Boston Globe: "It is time to move forward, whether or not the Duma ratifies START II." The three argue persuasively that the US has "an interest in being freed from the increasingly anachronistic and expensive strategic nuclear forces dictated by the START I agreement (and related congressional requirements that these higher levels be maintained)."

They go on to state clearly: "Strategically, U.S. foreign policy ought to proceed on the premise that while Russia may be down, it is not out: Sooner or later, Russia will again be a great power. We should not yield to the temptation to exploit its short-term weakness at the expense of reaping its enduring enmity, for if we do, then history indicates that our children will pay the price."

If for that reason only, the US should reach agreement with Russia on further reductions in both countries’ nuclear arsenals. Whether Russia will become friend or foe, it is hard to argue with the fact that the verified destruction of its nuclear arsenal is in American interests.