- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

Although it escaped most news media attention, the United States received an important bit of good news over the July 4 holiday. Russia’s parliament overwhelmingly approved legislation that enables the United States and Russia to continue their 16-year cooperation to safeguard and destroy the vast Soviet nuclear, chemical and biological weapons arsenal, which to this day remains a danger to both countries.

The 336-9 vote to renew the Nunn-Lugar umbrella agreement, which had been pending for more than a year, reaffirms the crucial role of non-proliferation in U.S.-Russian relations.

This agreement underpins all U.S. weapons dismantlement programs in the former Soviet Union. It protects U.S. funding and equipment provided for weapons cleanup from being taxed by Russian authorities, and protects U.S. contractors - who are doing much of the most difficult work - from liability in case of an accident or other mishap. The previous agreement had expired and was extended on a temporary basis, casting a cloud of uncertainty over major projects. Without these guarantees, work would have halted.

The vote comes as the Nunn-Lugar program is in the process of passing some important milestones. Since 1992, more than 2,000 former Soviet intercontinental missiles have been dismantled and more than 7,200 nuclear warheads have been deactivated. Together, the United States and Russia have eliminated more nuclear weapons than the combined arsenals of Britain, France and China.

By year’s end, Nunn-Lugar will eliminate the last of the Soviets’ rail-mobile intercontinental missiles - the SS-24 carried 10 warheads each capable of destroying a city. The program will also continue eliminating road-mobile SS-25 missiles (one warhead each), the giant SS-18 (10 warheads each) and SS-19 (six warheads each) missiles and their silos, and the SS-N-20 (10 warheads each) submarine-launched missiles. It will upgrade the physical security systems at 24 nuclear weapons storage sites in Russia.

Most importantly, after many delays and bureaucratic roadblocks in both Moscow and Washington, the first munitions destruction building will become operational at the vast chemical weapons depot at Shchuch’ye, in Siberia. There, more than 2 million rounds of deadly nerve gas - including small, portable shells capable of killing everyone in a football stadium - have been under security provided by Nunn-Lugar. Such munitions are an ideal target for terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Once the dangerous task to dispose of these weapons is underway, it will take several years to finish. The world will be a far safer place as a result. This is an example of the U.S.-Russian cooperation that can continue and thrive in the face of the ups and downs of a relationship that often finds our countries at odds.

In that spirit, the Bush administration should now focus on enhancing America’s own security by extending and strengthening the START Treaty, currently the central arms agreement between our two countries. Under its terms, both sides agree to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 3,500 warheads. Unfortunately, it is set to expire next year unless it is extended.

More recently, the U.S. and Russia concluded the Moscow Treaty, which calls for further cuts to as low as 1,700 warheads. However, the Moscow Treaty lacks a formal verification regime to give confidence to both sides and reduce the odds of misinterpretation and error. Our relations with Moscow are complicated enough without adding more uncertainty.

This shortcoming was to be remedied by extending START’s verification system. Yet increasingly, there are signs the administration intends to let START expire, or accept a much watered-down verification process. Some in the administration argue that START’s Cold War verification regime is out of step with the new U.S.-Russian strategic relationship.

By contrast, administration officials testified to the importance of START during Senate consideration of the Moscow Treaty in 2003. This is not a mere technical issue - the foundation of the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship is about to expire and with it, the key basis for trust between the two sides.

This should be an easy call for President Bush: both President Dmitry Medvedev and former President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin favor extending START. Failure to renew START will be seen worldwide as weakening the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and a further sign to many foreign leaders and experts that U.S. nonproliferation policy is adrift.

I urge President Bush to reject efforts to downgrade the START Treaty or let it expire and extend the treaty’s verification rules, thereby strengthening both the nonproliferation regime and America’s most critical bilateral relationship.

Richard Lugar is a Republican member of the United States Senate from Indiana.

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