Int. Herald Tribune
Nuclear weapons that people forget

William C. Potter, Nikolai Sokov

Paris, Wednesday, May 31, 2000


MONTEREY, California - Nuclear arms control issues will be on the agenda at the first summit meeting this weekend between President Bill Clinton and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Neither side, however, appears eager to address the sensitive problem of tactical nuclear weapons, the most destabilizing category of nuclear arms and the one least regulated by arms control agreements.

Tactical nuclear weapons are relatively small, short-range systems designed for use in battlefield or theater-level operations. Because of their size and forward basing, they are especially vulnerable to theft and unauthorized use. They have been unaffected by negotiated arms control agreements and are only subject to the non-binding unilateral, parallel declarations made by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the autumn of 1991.

These initiatives, along with a related pledge by Mr. Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in January 1992, provided for the elimination of thousands of tactical nuclear warheads and the transfer of most other stocks to central storage facilities.

Although these unilateral declarations appear to have been largely observed to date, their future is precarious. They are not legally binding, do not provide for data exchanges, lack a verification mechanism and can be terminated by either side without prior notification. As such, they are poorly equipped to withstand the challenges of any further deterioration in the U.S.-Russian political relationship, the renewed interest in tactical nuclear weapons in Russia as its conventional forces deteriorate and the possible U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The new Russian military doctrine poses special risks to the 1991 unilateral declarations because it provides for the early use of nuclear weapons in regional conflicts. This approach is reflected in the increased integration of tactical nuclear weapons into war planning, as was evident in the ''West 99'' military exercises last summer. In short, nuclear weapons in general and tactical nuclear weapons in particular are enjoying a renaissance in Russia where they are perceived as a poor man's substitute for advanced conventional arms.

Given these challenges, the informal tactical nuclear weapons control regime must be reinforced, and a retaining wall must be erected to prevent its erosion and collapse. Among the most important steps that should be taken are reaffirmation by the United States and Russia in a joint statement by the two presidents of their continued commitment to the 1991 parallel statements, or preferably the signing of an executive agreement to that effect.

Ideally, action of this sort should be taken at the summit meeting between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Putin in Moscow on Sunday and Monday, before Russia commits to new production or deployments of tactical nuclear weapons.

It would also be highly desirable for both presidents to direct their governments to begin negotiations on a legally binding treaty that codified the 1991 statements. Such a treaty should include provisions for data exchange and verification measures. Although these negotiations could conceivably be held within the framework of the talks to finalize the third Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, this forum is already burdened by other issues. It would probably be best to address tactical nuclear weapons in a separate, dedicated negotiation.

Although efforts should continue to be directed toward reducing arsenals of long-range strategic nuclear arms, it is increasingly urgent to reinvigorate the process of eliminating tactical nuclear weapons. Failure to do so would undo earlier accomplishments and open the door to a new and destabilizing arms race.

Mr. Potter is director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Mr. Sokov, a former Russian arms control negotiator, is a senior associate at the center. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.



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