Russian president Boris Yeltsin has once again used a foreign visit to announce a dramatic arms control initiative, and once again he has been quickly "corrected" by his staff. This time, the location was Stockholm and the subject was strategic nuclear arms. Yeltsin created a stir at yesterday’s press conference when he told reporters: "I say to you here, for the first time, unilaterally, that we are going to reduce our quantity of nuclear warheads by one-third." Kremlin press secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky was quick to make clear that such a cut would not be unilateral at all, but rather was a "possible proposal" for the START III talks which will formally get underway once Russia ratifies START II. American and Russian negotiators have been working on the general framework for START III while they wait for the earlier treaty to be approved.
Yastrzhembsky, unfortunately, did not clarify Yeltsin’s arithmetic. Currently, the only strategic arms reduction treaty that has entered into force is the 1991 START I treaty. Under its terms both Russia and the U.S. are reducing their strategic forces so that they will have the means to deliver no more than 6,000 warheads. This limit must be reached by December 5, 2001. Earlier this year, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency estimated that Russia had the missiles and bombers to carry just under 8,000 warheads. Once START II enters into force, the two sides will have to make additional force cuts, by the end of 2007, so that they will be able to carry no more than 3,500 warheads. At their Helsinki summit meeting earlier this year, Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton agreed that under START III this number would fall still further — to between 2,000 and 2,500 warheads by the same deadline.
The Pentagon’s press spokesman was quick to welcome Yeltsin’s latest offer, and added hopefully that it might apply to Russian tactical as well as strategic nuclear weapons. Jack Mendelsohn, a spokesman for the Arms Control Association, was more cynical, suggesting that Russia’s economic crisis rather than any sort of arms control altruism is driving Moscow to reduce its nuclear arsenal. (Russian and Western media, December 2)
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