Today's date:
Summer 2002

Storing Instead of Destroying Warhead Will Spur Proliferation

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, spoke with NPQ in Moscow. Gorbachev is now president of Green Cross International, a global environmental organization.

NPQ | (US President George W.) Bush and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin signed an agreement recently to radically reduce their nuclear warheads. Is this what you envisioned back in Reykjavik during the waning days of the Cold War when you proposed drastic reductions to (President Ronald) Reagan?

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV | Well, it is even more than what we discussed in Reykjavik, of course, because the old structures and inertia of enmity are now gone.

In spite of its shortcomings-namely, the storage instead of destruction of warheads-this agreement is a highly positive step. It establishes a binding legal requirement on reductions for a period of time, and the terms of the agreement refer to the treaty obligations of SALT II already in place. In other words, it locks in reductions and all the verification controls.

The No. 1 consequence of the Bush-Putin summit, however, was not the agreement itself, but rather a rebirth of the atmosphere of trust between Russia and the United States that had existed in the immediate wake of the Cold War, but then soured.

NPQ | Then Putin went to Rome to celebrate Russia's significant new role in NATO. Has Russia at last found its proper role in Europe?

GORBACHEV | The creation of the so-called NATO "20" and the agreement with Russia in Rome were also steps in the right direction, though it is not yet the achievement of an integrated European security space that we sought at the end of the Cold War. In time, I feel certain, that will come.

Are you no longer concerned over the unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty by the US that makes way for a national missile shield? Putin called the US action "a big mistake."

I am still very concerned. Indeed, I remain far from thinking that we are at the final destination along the route of resolving this disagreement over the missile shield or the final disposition of the warheads that are stored and not destroyed.

Recently, I had a meeting with Henry Kissinger. We both agreed it would be better if the warheads were destroyed. Putin will make sure this issue is addressed in the future. Perhaps when it becomes practically clear to the Americans that these stored warheads have no function as any kind of deterrent-their only possible purpose-they will be seen as redundant and unnecessary to keep.

But it is a mark of the mature level of trust between the two presidents that when problems remain unresolvable at the moment, they are able, without dramatization, to postpone the solution of that problem for future meetings. This is a new moment in the relations between the US and Russia since neither side overdramatizes the existence of differences. Political elites in both countries should follow this example of emphasizing what is common rather than our differences.

Do you share the concern that not only may these weapons be stored insecurely but that Russia's stock of enriched uranium and plutonium may leak out to terrorists? It is estimated Russia has enough nuclear material to make 70,000 weapons. And it has 6,000 scientists, largely underemployed, who can make bombs if somebody wants to hire them.

Gorbachev |
It is very improbable that the stored warheads or enriched uranium could be stolen. Despite some misperceptions, the security is very strict. The question of all those scientists who can make bombs is a more serious issue, though I doubt many can be tempted to build bombs for other countries. As the former leader of the Soviet Union, I know what I'm talking about: It requires a great deal of effort and capability for any country to develop nuclear warheads and their means of delivery. The best way to stop this from happening is to give universal focus to strict implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For me, a far bigger issue is the reaction of other members of the nuclear club to storage instead of destruction of warheads. They are likely to think that the big two nuclear powers, Russia and America, are trying to outsmart them, asking them to forgo or get rid of nuclear weapons while hiding their own or putting them in storage. So rather than restrain themselves, they will build up.

That is why the most powerful countries of the nuclear club, the US and Russia, must pave the way to a less vulnerable world by irreversibly cutting down the size of their nuclear arsenals.

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