LONDON — U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed deep cuts in the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, a move analysts say could make the world a little safer and save the countries a lot of money. But the experts say the biggest benefit might be an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations.
President Obama chose an iconic Cold War location -- the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin -- to make his new arms control proposal, offering to reduce U.S. nuclear warheads by one third. “I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures,” he said.
The crowd in Berlin was enthusiastic. But actually negotiating cuts, and getting any agreement ratified by the U.S. Senate, will be difficult.
Still, nuclear expert Heather Williams, of London’s Chatham House research institute, said talks will have broader value. “The number itself of reductions and number of weapons being drawn down, it is important, but it is not the most important part of arms control. It is the act of talking to each other, and it gives the U.S. and Russia this opportunity to engage and to try to improve relations,” she said.
Williams said U.S.-Russia talks could also put nuclear arms reductions on the agenda for other nuclear powers, like India.
Nine countries have nuclear weapons, and more are trying to join the group. Russia wants any talks to at least include China.
But the United States and Russia have about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear bombs, many of them controlled at underground facilities like this one, ready to launch on a few minutes’ notice.
So, Cold War-style U.S.-Russian negotiations are still needed, according to British government adviser Malcolm Chalmers at the Royal United Services Institute. “I do not think it is going to happen in the next few months. I do not think it suits Putin in terms of his domestic position," he stated. "But I think, at some time in the next five or 10 years, I think it is a card which will be in the interest of both the U.S. and Russia to play.”
Although the United States and Russia deploy thousands of nuclear weapons on land, in the air and at sea, concern about a U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange is far diminished from the Cold War years.
But Heather Williams said there is another motivation for reducing arsenals -- they are expensive. “Russia, as everyone knows, is under enormous financial pressure. And they just have not invested in their nuclear infrastructure. Neither has the U.S. to some extent. But Russia can not afford these weapons, so they are more keen to get rid of them than the U.S,” she said.
So even at a time of reduced nuclear tensions, there is motivation to lower the threat even more, and perhaps to open a channel for U.S.-Russian dialogue on other issues at the same time.