This Week – Do we really need Russia to Tango?

This Tuesday will mark the 20th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush’s announcement of the U.S. Presidential Nuclear Initiative (PNI). The U.S. PNI was a unilateral measure taken to reduce nuclear deployments with a focus on tactical nuclear weapons, in expectation of reciprocity from the Soviet Union. 
As the Cold War was ending, and with the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) having been signed, President Bush promised on September 27, 1991 to eliminate ground-launched short-range (theater) nuclear weapons, nuclear artillery shells, and short-range ballistic missile warheads. He also pledged to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons that had been on surface ships and attack submarines, and nuclear weapons assigned to land-based naval aircraft. These were among other measures he announced under the PNI to signal that the United States was lowering its nuclear threat toward the Soviet Union.

Within two weeks of the announcement, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev responded by pledging that his country would take similar actions, ultimately leading to the withdrawal, and in some cases elimination, of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons on both sides. But the reciprocal initiatives were not accompanied by any verification measures, and thus firm figures on what was actually reduced and eliminated do not exist.

Could or should anything like the PNIs be put forward today to address remaining U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons? The START approach provides more confidence in arms control because it is legally binding, transparent, and verifiable, but verifying a treaty on tactical nuclear weapons could be far more difficult.  The PNI approach also allowed the two countries to reduce their stockpiles without having to go through the parliamentary hurdles and political opposition that challenged New START.

On the other hand, the United States has affirmed that it will not take any unilateral steps on its remaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe for fear of upsetting NATO allies, and as a means of pressuring Russia to reduce its arsenal. The Alliance is supposed to address the tactical nuclear weapons issue in its ongoing Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, but progress has been slow.  Although a solution like the PNIs would be unlikely today, it’s become apparent that similar bold presidential leadership from the United States and Russia will be needed to realize more reductions in tactical nuclear arsenals.


Chris Lindborg

These are the personal views of the author.

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