MOSCOW — Setting the stage for tough talks on nuclear disarmament, Russia bristled Thursday at the Pentagon plan to downsize U.S. nuclear arsenals by putting weapons in reserve rather than destroying them.
Russia's Foreign Ministry insisted the cuts must be "irreversible" when the United States goes through with a promise by President Bush to reduce the number of operational nuclear warheads by two-thirds, to 1,700-2,200, by 2012.
The issue of what to do with nuclear weapons removed from duty — the so-called build-up potential — has been a major point of contention in previous U.S.-Russian negotiations. The latest statements from both sides signal tough bargaining ahead.
U.S. and Russian diplomats are expected to meet in Washington next week to discuss the details and timetable for the cuts in preparation for Bush's trip to Russia later this spring or summer.
"Russia will push strongly for the nuclear cuts to be irreversible, but the United States is unlikely to make any major concessions," said Alexander Pikayev, a military analyst with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office. "Unfortunately for Russia, its position in talks is rather weak because its aging nuclear weapons are to go off-duty anyway."
Bush promised Russian President Vladimir Putin in November that his administration would make the cuts in the numbers of operational warheads — putting the arsenal far below the 6,000 nuclear warheads each country is currently allowed under the START I agreement.
Putin has promised to cut the number of Russian warheads to as low as 1,500. He has also pushed for the cuts to be written into formal treaty, something Bush opposes.
On Wednesday, a top Pentagon planner said that in the reduction plan, some warheads would be destroyed — how many was not announced — while others would be rendered inactive, meaning it would take several months to get them ready to fire.
J.D. Crouch, assistant secretary of defense for international security, said the United States needs to keep the warheads in reserve in case the world situation changes. Most previous arms control treaties do not require warheads to be destroyed, he said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry responded sharply Thursday. Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said cuts must be "irreversible, so that strategic offensive weapons aren't just reduced 'on paper.' "
Retired Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, a former top Russian arms control negotiator, said he expected a compromise, given the recent warmth in Russian-U.S. ties.
"I wouldn't dramatize the situation. A solution can be found by the time of Bush's visit," said Dvorkin, now an adviser to the PIR-Center, an independent Russian military policy think-tank.