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Deeper Nuclear Cuts Unlikely for Now

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Wade Boese

A senior Bush administration official has labeled recent Russian statements on additional nuclear arms talks between the two sides as illtimed and insincere, suggesting that prospects are slim for any new agreement on U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpile cuts during President George W. Bush’s second term.

Russian officials in May reiterated Moscow’s long-standing interest in cutting its strategic nuclear arsenal down to 1,500 warheads or fewer. The United States currently deploys nearly 6,000 such warheads, while Russia fields less than 4,800.

Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker told Arms Control Today June 3 that it is “premature” to hold negotiations on lowering U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warhead levels further than currently planned because the two sides are still implementing an agreement concluded just three years ago. The May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty commits Washington and Moscow to operationally deploying less than 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads apiece by the end of 2012. (See ACT, June 2002.)

Rademaker also said that talks on tactical nuclear weapons between the two former Cold War foes were also improbable. Although Washington is interested in engaging Moscow on these types of weapons, the assistant secretary said Russia has “very little interest in talking to us.” Tactical nuclear weapons are those designed for battlefield use, such as atomic artillery shells and nuclear gravity bombs for combat aircraft delivery, as opposed to strategic nuclear warheads, which are deployed on long-range bombers, ICBMs, and submarines.

In June, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying, “We are prepared to start talks about tactical nuclear weapons only when all countries possessing them store them in their territories.” The United States stations some 400 nuclear gravity bombs on the territories of six of its European fellow NATO members: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Rademaker described Ivanov’s proposal as nothing new and a “stalling tactic…designed to make sure there are no negotiations on the issue.” He further stated, “[I]t is a very convenient position for the Russians to take because they can withdraw their tactical nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad… and say that they have withdrawn [their arms] to national territory and why doesn’t the United States do the same.” It is unclear if Moscow houses nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, which is a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland. (See ACT, January/ February 2001.)

“I would respond to Mr. Ivanov that the more relevant question is why Russia has not fully implemented the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives?” Rademaker said. The Kremlin in 1991 and 1992 pledged to eliminate nuclear mines, artillery shells, and tactical missiles, as well as centrally store other types of tactical nuclear weapons on its territory. These commitments reciprocated a September 1991 announcement by then-President George H. W. Bush that the United States would eliminate its stockpile of ground-launched battlefield nuclear weapons and stop regular deployments of naval-based tactical nuclear arms. (See ACT, October 1991.)

The Department of State would not clarify how Russia has not lived up to its past promises, releasing instead a June 10 statement to Arms Control Today that “Russia has failed to state publicly the status of the elimination of its nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for air defense missiles, nuclear mines, or nuclear weapons on land-based naval aviation.” For its part, Russia issued a May report that stated it has reduced its tactical nuclear arsenal “by four times” since 1991 and intends to “further reduce the level of these weapons.” Moscow is estimated to have at least 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons.

Ivanov’s allusion to U.S. nuclear weapons assigned to NATO followed recent Belgian and German lawmakers’ calls for the 26-member alliance to review its nuclear policies, including where warheads are based. (See ACT, June 2005.)

German Defense Minister Peter Struck said May 6 that Germany would raise the issue within NATO. But at the alliance’s June 9 Nuclear Planning Group meeting, Germany only informed other NATO members of the growing debate in Germany on the matter, according to a NATO official. The same official told Arms Control Today June 17 that there was “no discussion at all of any possible change in NATO’s nuclear posture.”

Rademaker said that the United States would welcome a discussion of NATO’s nuclear policy if any alliance member initiated it. But he added, “So far as we are aware, there is no member of NATO that disagrees with the current NATO policy on tactical nuclear weapons.”