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– Peter Crail
Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
Bush, Putin Pledge Nuclear Cuts; Implementation Unclear
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Philipp C. Bleek

On November 13, President George W. Bush pledged to reduce the deployed U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads over the next 10 years, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to say that Russia would try to “respond in kind.”

The cuts, announced at the beginning of a three-day U.S.-Russian summit held in Washington, D.C., and Crawford, Texas, would represent a substantial reduction in the deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals, which currently consist of about 6,000 warheads each, as agreed under the START I accord.

Deploying only 1,700-2,200 strategic warheads would bring the U.S. arsenal below the proposed START III limit of 2,000-2,500 warheads, agreed to by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1997, and well below the 3,000-3,500 ceiling formalized in START II, which has not entered into force. Bush’s proposed level of strategic warheads also falls beneath the 2,000-2,500 range that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had previously suggested was the lowest level they could support.

The promised nuclear cuts would fulfill a key campaign pledge by the president. As a candidate, Bush promised to move beyond “Cold War nuclear targeting,” saying he would pursue “the lowest possible number [of warheads] consistent with our national security,” which he characterized as “significantly” below START II levels. (See ACT, September 2000.)

It is not yet clear what the United States will do with the thousands of warheads to be removed from service. In Crawford on November 15, Bush told a group of high school students, “We are talking about reducing and destroying the number of warheads to get down to specific levels.”

But national security adviser Condoleezza Rice subsequently indicated that the warheads might not actually be destroyed. “We will not have these warheads near the places at which they could be deployed,” she said, adding that specific disposition plans remain to be “worked out.” If they were not dismantled, the warheads could be placed in the United States’ “active reserve” stockpile, which currently contains about 2,500 warheads.

Also at issue is whether the reductions will be formalized in a treaty. Announcing the cuts from the White House, Bush indicated that the “endless hours of arms control discussions” that led to the START agreements were no longer needed because the United States and Russia have “a new relationship based on trust.”

But speaking at the Russian embassy later that day, Putin aired a different view, saying, “The world is far from having international relations that are built solely on trust, unfortunately. That’s why it is so important today to rely on the existing foundation of treaties and agreements in the arms control and disarmament areas.”

Some observers had predicted that Washington might agree to formal strategic reductions with Russia in exchange for concessions to allow more robust missile defense testing under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which bans nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses. Putin has recently signaled a willingness to amend the ABM Treaty and has long called for a formal agreement on bilateral reductions to 1,500 deployed strategic warheads, but Bush administration officials continue to reiterate their desire to “move beyond” the treaty and have resisted negotiations on offensive reductions.

Nonetheless, Bush did show some willingness to formalize the cuts. “If we need to write it down on a piece of paper, I’ll be glad to do that,” he said. Rice expanded on this point during a November 15 briefing, indicating that codifying the reductions in a less drawn-out manner than previous strategic arms agreements remained under discussion. She also suggested that “verification procedures out of former treaties” could “perhaps” be utilized.

On the Senate floor November 15, leading Democrats sharply criticized the administration’s reluctance to negotiate a treaty to formalize the nuclear cuts. Citing former President Ronald Reagan’s dictum, “Trust but verify,” Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, pointed out that “a simple handshake leaves many questions unanswered.” Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that “a new START III treaty would not be difficult to draft [and] would ensure not only rigorous verification but also proper respect for the constitutional role of the Senate regarding international agreements.”

Before the reductions can be implemented, Congress must overturn a law prohibiting the president from reducing U.S. nuclear forces below START I levels until START II enters into force. The language, first inserted in the 1998 defense authorization act by Republican lawmakers, prohibits spending funds on “retiring or dismantling” designated strategic delivery systems, which correspond to a START I-compliant force.

The Senate version of the fiscal year 2002 defense authorization bill would repeal this language, but the House version essentially maintains it. The bill is currently under discussion in a House-Senate conference committee, which is expected to adopt the Senate language.