The scenario of World War Three with thousands of nuclear weapons flying across the globe in both directions and billions of people killed, that really has disappeared,” asserted former National Intelligence Council (NIC) chairman Fritz Ermarth at the Heritage Foundation on December 1st. Yet, that does not mean that the threat of nuclear weapons has vanished.
The START I arms-reduction treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union was entered into force on December 5, 1994 and expires on December 5th, 2009. U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to sign, while not necessarily an extension of the treaty, at least a significant nuclear arms control treaty some time this month. A November 14th Associated Press article said that “Obama and Medvedev agreed at a Moscow summit in July to cut the number of nuclear warheads each possesses to between 1,500 and 1,675 within seven years as part of a broad new treaty.”
At a speech in Prague in April of this year, President Obama summed up the U.S. posture towards nuclear arms, saying:
“…the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies…. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.”
Speakers of a December 1st Heritage Foundation panel on START, however, expressed their concern that while the U.S. is moving towards a “nuclear-free world,” Russia has no intention or incentive to do the same.
Andrei Shoumikhin, visiting Defense and Strategic studies professor from Missouri State University, outlined the main reasons why he thought Russia’s weapons strategy relies dominantly on nuclear weapons. For one thing, nuclear weapons are seen as the “ultimate deterrence” and Shoumikhin said Russia would be loathe to give that up. Russia is especially reliant on nuclear weapons because its conventional weapons forces are weak, he argued. And finally, he said, Russia has what he calls “ideological underpinnings for superpower conflict;” strong nuclear armaments guarantee Russia a nuclear status equal to the U.S. “By and large, many Russians continue to see their country as a natural counterbalance to the U.S. at least in regions adjacent to its borders, if not globally,” said Shoumikhin. Thus, it is not only militarily but politically necessary for Russia to proliferate its nuclear weapons. “The image of Russia gaining [or] winning over America on arms control will make nationalistic if not chauvinistic tendencies in the Russian federation become more pronounced,” warned Shoumikhin.
In a few months, the Obama Administration will present a Nuclear Posture Review, which Fritz Ermarth predicted will be the most restrictive statement of nuclear attitude ever promulgated and that, in contrast, Russia’s nuclear posture will be the most permissive. Thus he asked: “Are the guys who gave us Chechnya and the Georgian War going to be the same guys who make the decision on first use of tactical nuclear weapons?”