When Bush Meets Putin

Despite the broad agenda facing Presidents Bush and Putin at their summit meeting this weekend in Slovenia, media attention has tilted toward one particular plot line: Will President Bush make progress in persuading his Russian counterpart to drop objections to U.S. missile defenses? It is a story line that is interesting and important -- but dangerously out of focus.

The clear and present danger is not from North Korean missiles that could hit America in a few years but from Russian missiles that could hit in 30 minutes, and from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials in Russia and the former Soviet Union that could fall into the hands of terrorist groups. The likeliest nuclear attack against the United States would come not from a nuclear missile launched by a rogue state but from a warhead in the belly of a ship or the back of a truck delivered by a group with no return address.

President Bush's challenge, which will hover over his efforts this weekend and beyond, is to prepare for the more remote threats without leaving us more vulnerable to the immediate ones. His success should be judged not by whether he wins Russian acquiescence on missile defense but by whether he can begin to broaden and strengthen cooperation with Russia in defending against our common dangers. The goals: ensuring strategic nuclear stability, reducing the risk of accidental launch, cutting the risk of terrorist attack, countering the threat of a rogue nation's attack, and limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction by safeguarding weapons, materials and know-how throughout the weapons complex of the former Soviet Union.

The threats we faced during the Cold War--a Soviet nuclear strike or an invasion of Europe--were made more dangerous by Soviet strength. The threats we face today--accidental launch, the risk of weapons, materials and know-how falling into the wrong hands--are made more dangerous by Russia's weakness.

We addressed the Cold War's threats by confrontation with Moscow, but today there can be no realistic plan to defend America against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that does not depend on cooperation with Moscow. George W. Bush said as a candidate: "A great deal of Russian nuclear material cannot be accounted for. The next president must press for an accurate inventory of all this material, and we must do more. I will ask the Congress to increase substantially our assistance to dismantle as many of Russia's weapons as possible as quickly as possible." He is right -- but try doing that without Russian cooperation.

Whether the Bush team wins Russia's cooperation depends in part on how skillfully it seeks it, or whether it even wants it. It's still too early to know. The Bush administration has yet to make several pivotal decisions that will define its policy on reducing the threat from weapons of mass destruction.

First is the matter of our nuclear weapons policy. Today U.S. and Russian nuclear postures may well increase the risk both were designed to reduce. The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to launch within minutes--essentially the same posture we had during the Cold War. Today U.S. capacity for a rapid, massive strike may well increase the chance of a Russian mistake. Stability is eroding because Russia's ability to survive a massive first strike is increasingly in doubt. Russia can no longer afford to keep its nuclear subs at sea or its land-based missiles mobile and invulnerable. This reduces Russia's confidence that its nuclear weapons can survive a first strike, which means it is more likely to launch its nuclear missiles on warning -- believing its choice may be to "use them quickly or lose them." Adding to the dangers is the fact that Russia's early warning system is seriously eroding. If the shoe were on the other foot, the United States would be alarmed by the danger of Russia's capacity for a first strike and plans to defend against the few missiles that would be left.

Our offensive posture has a huge effect on how Russia views our defensive plan. The most important element in President Bush's May 1 speech wasn't missile defense; it was his public commitment to "change the size, the composition and the character of our nuclear forces in a way that reflects the reality that the Cold War is over." If this is done right and coordinated with Russia, it could increase our security in a way that a missile defense system will not be able to achieve even 10 to 20 years down the road. These changes would also make it much more likely that Russia would agree to needed modifications in the ABM Treaty that could allow for a prudent, limited national missile defense.

A second decision facing the Bush administration is its policy on nonproliferation, particularly efforts to limit the flow of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, materials and expertise out of Russia. More than 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium and 150 tons of plutonium still exist in the Russian nuclear complex, enough to build 60,000 to 80,000 weapons. Storage sites are poorly secured, and weapons scientists have no steady paychecks. We have already seen hostile efforts to sell, steal and recruit weapons designs, materials and know-how out of Russia. Osama bin Laden has said acquiring weapons of mass destruction is "a religious duty." We dare not risk a world where a Russian scientist can take care of his children only by endangering ours.

Earlier this year, a distinguished bipartisan task force headed by Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler published a major report on the need to secure Russian weapons, materials and know-how, declaring it "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States," and calling for a four-fold funding increase for these threat-reduction efforts. The Bush budget instead cut funding 15 percent, and at least one administration official involved in the review has said we should expect further cuts. The review by President Bush must answer a fundamental question: Is keeping nuclear, chemical and biological materials out of terrorist hands a priority or an afterthought?

A third decision facing the Bush administration is the matter of missile defense. There are traps on both sides of the missile defense debate. Some insist we must have it, without regard to cost, so we will never be vulnerable to nuclear blackmail by a rogue state. They should temper their rhetoric. By declaring that we desperately need missile defenses to avoid being blackmailed by a few nuclear missiles, they may invite rogue states to believe that, even though we could identify and devastate a nation that launched a missile, we would yield to blackmail if they threatened an American city with a nuclear, chemical or biological attack with or without a ballistic missile. If we had preached that doctrine during the Cold War, could we have deterred Soviet aggression around the world?

On the opposite side, some argue against missile defense of any kind, and they seem, perhaps inadvertently, to embrace the idea that the only deterrence option for the United States and Russia is the threat of nation-ending destruction, an outmoded and increasingly dangerous concept. President Bush is right to search for a way to change this Cold War posture.

A limited missile defense has a place in a comprehensive, integrated plan of nuclear defense, but it should be seen for what it is--a last line of defense. Our first line of defense is diplomacy, intelligence and cooperation among nations, including Russia. It would be far better to prevent a missile from being built than to wait eight to 10 years and hope we can hit it in mid-air on its way over here. It's not that we shouldn't have an insurance policy in case all else fails, but we shouldn't spend so much on the premium that we can't afford a lock for the door.

These three reviews now underway in the Bush administration address separate elements of the U.S. response to the threat from weapons of mass destruction. But they should not and must not be formulated into separate policies. They must be woven into a comprehensive defense against weapons of mass destruction -- in any form, from any source, on any vehicle, whether triggered by intent or accident.

The writer, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

June 12, 2001

This op-ed by Senator Nunn in The Washington Post outlines the key issues surrounding the June meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI