Vienna Forum Hears Warnings of a New U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Race

A Russian self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems BUK-M2E during the 'Army-2015' international military forum in Kubinka, outside Moscow, on June 17, 2015.

A Russian self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems BUK-M2E during the 'Army-2015' international military forum in Kubinka, outside Moscow, on June 17, 2015.

Photographer: Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. and Russia are pushing the world to the threshold of a new nuclear-arms race as the Senate refuses to ratify international restrictions on atomic testing, according to current and former American and European officials.

Both countries are undermining international rules designed to limit the risk of conflict, said William Perry and Desmond Browne, the former top defense officials in the U.S. and U.K. respectively. They voiced concern at a meeting of diplomats and scientists this week in Vienna who gathered to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation.

“We are about to begin a new round in the nuclear arms race unless some brake is put on it right now,” said Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton who now leads a defense research project at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “In this environment, the imperative to test is very high.”

Russia and the U.S. together control over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons -- some 14,700 warheads according to the most recent estimates. While Russia has already signed and ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the U.S. has failed to do so despite pledges to the contrary. Russia last tested a nuclear weapon in 1990, the U.S. in 1992.

“The inability of the U.S. political system to ratify a treaty of any description is a function of its domestic dysfunctionality,” said Browne, currently vice-chair of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit research group. “We have to engage.”

‘Prepare to Respond’

The U.S.’s failure to approve the nuclear-testing treaty prompted Russian criticism earlier this year. Clinton lost a Senate vote on ratification in 1999 while Obama has avoided sending a bill to lawmakers because of resistance among senators. George W. Bush opposed the treaty.

U.S. Senators have become increasingly bogged down by bipartisan politics that have slowed the pace of legislation. Obama-administration initiatives have also been hampered by delayed votes on presidential appointments and bickering over government funding.

“We all understand the gravity of nuclear dangers,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told journalists June 21 en route to a meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Berlin. “We continue to deter, to have a strong deterrent and prepare to respond.”

Last week, President Vladimir Putin announced his country would boost its arsenal with 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. Russia is also deploying new strategic bombers and submarine-launched missiles.

Shouting Not Talking

Since bringing the country back from the brink of bankruptcy a decade and a half ago, Putin has increased defense spending more than 20-fold in ruble terms to $84 billion last year when the conflict in Ukraine sent relations with the U.S. and Europe to a post-Cold War low. A draft Pentagon spending bill approved earlier this month approved $576 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

“Instead of talking with each other we’re shouting at each other,” said Perry, who helped lay the groundwork for NATO expansion in eastern Europe during the Clinton presidency. “We have to recognize that Russia is a great nation, that some of the things we’ve done in the past have undermined the relationship.”

“Russia on the other hand has to be prepared, among other things, to respect the integrity of Ukraine,” he added.

Adding to the tensions, members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which includes 191 signatories including well as the U.S. and Russia, failed to agree on joint objectives on disarmament at a meeting last month in New York.

“The divisions are getting deeper,” Alexander Kementt, Austria’s Director of Disarmament, said at a briefing in Vienna on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t say the system is too big to fail.”

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