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A worthy U.S.-Russia arms control treaty

Saturday, March 27, 2010; A12

THE NEW U.S.-Russian arms control treaty was described Friday by the Obama administration as a step toward the achievement of a host of ambitious goals: a "strong partnership" with the regime of Vladimir Putin; multilateral action to stop or reverse the nuclearization of Iran and North Korea; and not least, as President Obama put it, "a world without nuclear weapons." But it's not necessary to share the president's long-term vision, or his expansive estimation of the new treaty's influence, in order to celebrate what appears to be a solid diplomatic achievement.

A year in negotiation, the accord mandates a trim of about 30 percent in the deployed strategic weapons of the two countries, to 1,550 warheads on each side. Launchers -- land and sea-based missiles as well as bombers -- would be reduced to 800. Russia is already near that figure and will almost certainly fall well below it during the treaty's 10-year term. The United States will have to cut launchers by several hundred, though it will be able to convert some to carry conventional weapons. That's one reason why the treaty is more important to Moscow, and its ambitions of remaining on a par with the United States, than it is to U.S. national security.

Mr. Putin also hoped to use the accord -- dubbed New START, for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- to curtail U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe. Administration officials insisted Friday that the bid failed, and that "the treaty does not contain any constraints on . . . planned U.S. missile defense programs," as a White House statement put it. There is, however, language linking offensive and defensive weapons in a nonbinding preamble. Republican senators -- at least eight of whom will be needed for ratification -- can be expected to form their own opinions about whether or not it could constrain a vital defense program.

There will also be questions about verification: Past procedures for the monitoring of missile tests have been weakened. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that the United States would have all the data it needed to verify the treaty. The administration will argue that, unless it is ratified, there will be no inspections of Russian weapons, since the previous regime expired in December.

As described Friday, the accord sounds worthy; the United States still deploys more nuclear weapons than it needs. Mr. Obama's broader vision of what can be achieved through arms control is more open to question. He hopes the deal will add momentum to two upcoming summit meetings, on the control of nuclear materials and on revisions in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; that seems possible. Officials say they expect Russia will now cooperate in imposing sanctions on Iran, though Moscow is still resisting strong measures. Still, it's hard to see how new treaties will bring about the disarmament of North Korea or stop Tehran's centrifuges.

As for the notion that Mr. Obama has begun a march toward a nuclear-free world, we are with Mr. Gates, who said: "I don't think anyone expects us to come anywhere close to zero nuclear weapons anytime soon." Given the threats the United States and its allies still face, that is a good thing.

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