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START Treaty Ushered in New Nuclear Era

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Jeffrey Young

1991 was the year that U.S.-Soviet strategic relations took a historic turn. And in that same year, as the Soviet Union dissolved, a special program to collect and lock up the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal was created.

Roughly 20 years ago, in December 1991, the Soviet Union came to an end.  And in that year, the so-called "Cold War" between Moscow and Washington that began at the end of World War Two underwent a historic transformation with the START treaty.

For the first time in history, the two superpowers agreed that year to significantly reduce nuclear weapons that could reach each other's soil, as well as the missiles, aircraft and other means of delivering them.

RAND Corporation analyst Olga Oliker explains what happened in 1991 that changed decades of rivalry into a new sense of joint nuclear responsibility.

"The process of negotiations was an indication that people were realizing how important this [treaty] was," said Oliker.  "And it was something that, both in the Soviet Union and the United States, people wanted. Everyone had realized that the arms race had gotten out of control."

To some observers, it was, instead, a reaction to the increasing burden of Soviet deficiencies.  Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

"They had no alternative," said Brzezinski.  "They increasingly realized that in a situation in which the United States and the Soviet Union were to compete in arming themselves, the advantage economically and technologically was increasingly with the United States."

START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was signed on July 31, 1991. Under its terms, both nations agreed to each have no more than 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads and only 1,600 delivery vehicles.

The Soviets went from limiting arms to actually reducing nuclear stockpiles because the process maintained appearances that were vital to Moscow on the world stage.  U.S. arms negotiator David Smith.

"Remember these are the things - these treaties, SALT, then START - kept them perceptually in the political game as equals of the United States," said Smith.  "And that was more important than the number count."

1991 also produced another historic superpower development, the "Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program." The United States committed substantial funds and personnel to assist its nuclear rival in a manner unthinkable in previous decades.

"What the arrangement involved was, essentially, was an orderly accounting of the [Soviet nuclear] weapons, safeguarding of the weapons, and the removal of them from the reach by elements that could be equally damaging and dangerous to the former Soviet Union or to the West," added Brzezinski.

In a November 2011 address, Nunn-Lugar co-creator Senator Richard Lugar lists the program's results.

"Nunn-Lugar has deactivated 7,601 nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union - strategic warheads based on missiles - more than the arsenals of France, Britain and China combined. The program has destroyed 2,366 nuclear capable missiles, on which those warheads were placed," noted Lugar.

Nunn-Lugar is credited with helping three former Soviet republics - Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan - become nuclear free in the 1990s.

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