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New Hope in Russian Nuke Proposals

By Ivan Eland
January 27, 2011

Editor’s Note: U.S. national security policies are often rooted more in ideology and mythology than in a clear-eyed assessment of what’s good for the nation – especially in the area of nuclear weapons where Republicans are especially wedded to Ronald Reagan’s costly Cold War investments.

However, as the United States and Russia look for reasonable ways to cut military spending, new opportunities are opening up in nuclear negotiations, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland notes in this guest essay:

U.S.-Russian relations are on the upswing – with the new treaty reducing deployed long-range strategic missiles (New START), an agreement on nuclear cooperation, and an arrangement to transport supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan through Russia. But there is much more to be done.

And Russian proposals should be taken seriously, because they might also serve U.S. interests.

The Russians are testing U.S. rhetoric about creating a shared missile-defense system. In the past, the United States has claimed that any Europe-based missile-defense system was aimed at foiling a missile attack from Iran, not Russia, and that Russia had too many warheads for its nuclear deterrent to be threatened by such a modest missile defense.

Nonetheless, as the number of strategic missiles comes down under New START and a missile-defense system is erected near Russia’s borders, Russia is becoming justifiably more nervous about the system.

Of course, a Europe-based missile defense is hardly needed for U.S. security.
Even if the Iranians (whose alleged nuclear program apparently has been set back by U.S. and/or Israeli sabotage) ever produce a nuclear warhead that could be placed on a long-range missile, the vast and capable U.S. nuclear force would likely deter any nuclear attack from Iran — even if missile defenses were never deployed.

In fact, missile defense is an expensive relic of the Cold War, which the U.S. can no longer afford given its huge budget deficits and high debt levels. Keeping the program alive are Republicans who want to preserve this white elephant to realize the grandiose “Star Wars” dream of their hero, Ronald Reagan.

Besides, if the rich Europeans want missile defense against Iran — apparently not as much as the United States wants it for them — they should research, build, and pay for their own system.

So, although getting rid of this boondoggle would be in U.S. interests, regardless of what Russia thinks, American politics will probably prevent this from happening. The next best thing is to create a shared system with Russia — sharing early-warning data and even equipment, such as radars.

Russia’s constructive proposals in this area should be examined in good faith.
After the reduction in strategic weapons, attention will naturally shift to shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The Russians have always been leery of getting rid of such weapons while the U.S. still stores nuclear bombs in five European countries.

Again, curiously the Russian demand that these weapons be taken back to the United States, as a result of any negotiations over tactical nuclear weapons, is in U.S. interests. Those weapons are a symbol that in any war in Europe, things would quickly escalate to a broader nuclear conflict involving the United States.

Even during the Cold War, holding U.S. cities hostage to developments in Europe hardly protected U.S. citizens and actually endangered them. Now that the Cold War is long over, the U.S. providing a nuclear umbrella for wealthy European allies is even more insane for genuine U.S. security.

Thus, these U.S. weapons could be removed from Europe or destroyed in exchange for a reduction in or elimination of Russian tactical nuclear bombs, missile warheads, artillery shells, and anti-aircraft weapons.

Another idea worth kicking around is a ceiling that lowers the number of all nuclear weapons, thus balancing the Russian lead in tactical nuclear systems with the U.S. lead in stored (non-deployed) longer-range strategic weapons.

Also, the Russians want to bring the other nuclear powers into future arms control negotiations. This too makes sense, because as U.S. and Russian warhead totals are reduced, other nuclear powers’ arsenals loom larger in comparison.

Finally, the Russians would like to negotiate on weapons in space. Although countries usually avoid negotiating away a lead in a weapons category, the United States would be wise to do so in this case because it is also the leader in the use of space for commercial and military non-weapon uses (navigation, communication, surveillance, and early warning satellites).

Thus, the United States may be the leader in the development of space weapons, but it is also the most vulnerable to those weapons. And bringing other countries into such negotiations is a must, because other nations besides Russia — for example, China — could also use weapons in space.

In short, to further its own interests, the United States should conscientiously examine, and perhaps accept, Russia’s proposals for future arms control.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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