Pavel Podvig, research associate, Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation

June 19, 2013

When President Obama declared in his speech in Berlin that the United States can safely reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal by up to a third–which would bring it to the level of about 1,000 deployed warheads–it was hardly news. This option was the least radical and therefore the safest of the proposals that his administration was reported to consider. The news that everybody was waiting for was whether Obama would be ready to make these reductions unilaterally. He wasn’t. The speech and the new Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy that was released shortly afterward leave little doubt that the reductions would come only as part of “negotiated cuts with Russia.” Given the political realities in Washington, it is an understandable decision, but it is also a wrong one.

Russia, for many reasons, most of them internal, is not going to engage in a new round of nuclear arms reductions any time soon. But there is no reason why the United States could not reduce the number of its operationally deployed warheads down 1,000 or even less unilaterally, while still keeping the New START limit. To preserve its leverage in future negotiations with Russia, the United States could simply move warheads to active reserve and keep open the option of bringing them back. It many ways this would not be a real reduction of nuclear forces, but it would be a very bold step that could help end the situation when every nuclear disarmament step is a hostage to Russia’s intransigence.