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The Restarting of START

Nearly a decade after the end of the cold war, Moscow and Washington still struggle with two major aftereffects. One is lingering mistrust. The other is an overkill in nuclear missiles.

Reducing both of those will require patient persuasion by the US and a better democracy and economy in a Russia that still views itself as a put-upon superpower.

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Last week marked some progress in building trust and reducing the number of missiles. The Russian parliament belatedly ratified a nuclear-arms reduction treaty known as START II.

When the START arms-controls talks began 18 years ago during the cold war, both countries had well over 10,000 warheads - enough to waste the world many times over. START I took the number down to 6,000, a goal that has nearly been attained. START II's target is 3,000-3,500.

The US and Russia can now work on a START III treaty that could reduce warheads to around 2,000 each. The Russians, hard pressed to maintain their weapons, want even deeper cuts, down to 1,500.

Why did both sides have so many to begin with? Because of the bizarre logic of the cold war that one side would never trigger a nuclear conflict because the other could easily destroy it. This mutually assured destruction, or MAD, led to warhead overkill.

With their ideological contest now over, both sides are looking for a new concept of security. In the meantime, however, several small anti-American states, such as North Korea, have tried to build nuclear missiles that might reach the US.

The US now wants to set up a "limited" defense system to intercept such missiles. But Russia believes that shield could be easily expanded to knock out its missiles and neutralize it military prowess. What's more, Russia claims the proposed US system would violate a keystone of the cold-war MAD logic: the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Russia's new leader, Vladimir Putin, threatens to halt all arms-control moves if the US deploys the nuclear shield. That leaves the US with a difficult choice: Defend itself from a few nuclear missiles (maybe), or risk a new arms race with Russia and turn it into a competitor again.

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Both sides can probably find room to bend. At the least, they should continue reducing their nuclear arsenals.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society